By the mid 1800s the germ theory — a belief microscopic organisms caused certain diseases — was beginning to take root. Some physicians thought the idea of tiny microorganisms too little to be seen by the naked idea fanciful. However, bacteriologists, chemists, surgeons, proponents of hygiene, and others interested in medicine became convinced the germ theory had merit and they developed, proved, and popularized it in North America and Europe from 1850 to 1920.
Before the germ theory was even a thought, however, physicians relied on the Humoral theory. This theory believed in balancing the four humors — blood (sanguine), black bile (also known as melancholic), yellow bile (choleric), and phlegm (phlegmatic). Physicians also used many unusual remedies and cures to help people. Some were benign, others outlandish, and some downright lethal. A mixture of these remedies and cures in the 1700s and 1800s are listed below.
In general by the mid 1800s, most people knew that bathing was healthy. John Bell, M.D., wrote a whole book about bathing titled, Water, as a Preservative of Health, and a Remedy in Disease: A Treatise on Baths. It was published in 1859 and in it Bell claimed, “the watery regimen … [besides] cleansing, purifying, and invigorating the human frame … [is] a soother and comforter to the mind, and next to fresh and pure air, the best dispeller of the vapours and spasms of fitful hysteria and of gloomy hypochondriasis — the best cosmetic for beauty, the best cordial for care.” Thomas Harrison Yeoman, M.D., edited a compilation of remedies and cures titled The People’s Medical Journal and Family Physician. It was published in 1850, contained a section on bathing, and noted bathing “preserves health [and] … lights and invigorates the body.”
Both Yeoman and Bell believed in several types of bath ranging from cold to hot, and they found many instance where bathing was beneficial. In fact, Bell claimed there was “ample historic precedent and contemporaneous usage in [bathing’s] favour.” Bell also stated that cold baths helped “various febrile diseases,” inflammation of the joints, injuries from sprains and fractures, “fevers, inflammations, hemorrhages, convulsive affections … and irritative disorders [and in some instances cured scarlet fever].” Yeoman noted that cold baths invigorated and hardened a constitution.
Hot baths were also beneficial. Yeoman noted that hot baths helped those who had a “retention of urine [as hot baths]…afford great relief, and will frequently excite the bladder to expel its contents.” Additionally, he commented that the effects of hot baths were “an acceleration of the pulse; a softening of the muscular structure; a sudden expansion of the liquids of the body; a loss of fluid by transpiration.” Bell agreed but he also stated that hot baths were helpful with illness and among these illness mentioned were croup, cholera infantum, gout, or rheumatism. If you are interested in learning more about baths for medicinal purposes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, click here.
Bloodletting and Leeches
Although some doctors cautioned against bloodletting many physicians believed in it. Yeoman’s book claimed that “in blood-letting we possess a power of controlling pneumonic inflammation, the efficacy of which has been acknowledged in all ages, and is obvious, indeed, to the most superficial observer.” With such a view it is no wonder bloodletting was prescribed for numerous complaints.
Leeches were also used everywhere on the human body, and sometimes many were used at the same time. Yeoman thought an “inflamed heart” required the application of 40 leeches, which was then repeated up to 4 times at intervals between 4 and 12 hours. Another supposed superb use for leeches was “when the glands in the neck are swollen and painful.” Besides leeches he also recommended “a lotion composed of spirit of wine and water” be applied. Pleurisy required leeches to be applied on the affected side, because according to a Dr. Ellitson, “nothing can be more beautiful … than the treatment of an acute ease of inflammation.”
It was hard to know when a leech was full, but Thomas Shepherd from Bolton, England, claimed experiments had been conducted to determine when they were full. He maintained “a leech weighing three drachms, weighs six drachms and [a] half when filled to repletion, and that the blood which escapes afterwards from the puncture amounts to about three drachms and a half—so that the average loss of blood by the application of one leech may be estimated at something less than an ounce.”
Many people got boils and a supposed effective remedy was to soak a heel of homemade bread in boiling water, squeeze out the excess water, mix in a pinch of baking soda with the soaked bread, wrap that in a freshly boiled cloth and apply it to the affected area. The idea of bread may have come from the early Egyptians, who used moldy bread on boils to cure them. However, bread was not the only cure recommended for boils. Sarsaparilla, blood fortifying treatments, and bee remedies were at one point or another also considered successful in curing boils.
Calomel and Opium
Yeoman’s book offered calomel and opium as a remedy for acute rheumatism. Doctors claimed “local applications to the affected joints are of little service — or, rather, in most cases of no service at all. This remark applies equally to fomentations, cold lotions, rubefacient liniments, plasters, and blisters.” However, one supposedly successful remedy, beside bloodletting, was a combination of calomel (which was also called mercurous chloride) and opium, as this combination was said to “frequently arrest the disease.”
A Dr. Simpson of Edinburgh suggested that chloroform was the proper medication for child birth. According to Simpson its effects “have been delightful. The mothers, instead of crying and suffering under the strong agonies and throes of labour, have lain in a state of quiet, placid slumber.”
Cold water was prescribed for fevers in several different ways in Yeoman’s book. One doctor claimed that if a person’s temperature “be steadily above 98°…and should there be no pulmonic affection, or general profuse sweating, and the patient does not say he is chilly, you may take him from the bed, and pour a pail of cold water over him. After this cold effusion, the patient must be dried and placed in bed; and as soon as he grows hot again, the same plan may be resorted to. This makes him exceedingly comfortable, frequently induces perspiration and sends the patient to sleep, and occasionally it stops the fever.”
A doctor by the named of I.E. Shute tried everything to stop a nosebleed and “finally thought of inflating a condom in the cavity.” It was first greased and then a soft catheter pushed into it before that was pushed into the nostril and inflated. The condom was left there over night and the next morning the bleeding stopped. Shute also said he used a condom twice to staunch the blood flow in gunshot wounds and on several occasion as a tampon.
To destroy warts it was claimed a crowfoot plant, such a buttercup, was a slow, but effective method. The procedure was “on breaking the stalk of the crowfoot plant in two, a drop of milky juice will be observed to hang on the upper part of the stem; if this be allowed to drop on a wart, so that it be well saturated with the juice, in about three or four dressing the warts will die.”
Epsom or Glauber’s Salts
In 1896, Lyman Abbott compiled a two-volume book for household use titled The House and Home. In the book an article titled “Hygiene in the Home” was written by J. West Roosevelt, M.D, that discussed poisoning. One of the suggestions Roosevelt gave was that if someone was poisoned by lead, the best remedy was large doses of Epsom or Glauber’s salts and stimulating drinks, such as coffee.
Flower of Sulphur
To protect against toothache and prevent bad breath, one suggestion was to brush after dinner with a hard toothbrush using flowers of sulphur. Flowers of sulphur have anti-fungal and antiseptic properties and therefore may have been beneficial to the teeth.
Burns and scalds were said to be helped with flour. According to Yeoman, “No cold application ought ever to be employed; it may allay the pain for a short time, but it will only be for a short time; for, as the cold application becomes warm, the pain returns and becomes intolerable.” Instead, the suggestion was flour be “dusted on with a dredger, and … thickly strewed over the injured part, and some little distance beyond it, as frequently the inflammation of the skin spreads farther than … expected.” The flour dusted part was then wrapped in a cambric or thin linen handkerchief.
This could be used as syrup or tincture and was said to be a stimulant for gout, colic, or indigestion. It also served as an “adjunct to griping purgatives.” Interestingly, ginger and ginger root are still used today for indigestion and for nausea relief, particularly in pregnant women.
Horseradish is better known as a pungent companion of roast beef than a medicinal cure, but doctors in Yeoman’s book claimed it possessed many valuable properties, “especially [for] rheumatism and dropsy.” It was also claimed to be effective for chronic hoarseness. The recipe for hoarseness was simple: one drachm of scraped horseradish combined with two ounces of boiling water. This created a syrup and the patient’s dose was “a teaspoonful taken often and slowly, so that it may glide gradually over the back part of the throat and top of the windpipe.”
Some practitioners in Yeoman’s book considered iodine to possess expectorant properties and ordered patients to inhale it.
G. O. Rees, M.D. suggested in Yeoman’s book that to aid chronic rheumatism sufferers they use applications of lemon juice, from one to two ounces every four to six hours. Rees claimed:
[He had] used lemon-juice with very great advantage. I allude to such as are connected with deposit of lithate of soda in and about the smaller joints … the continued use of lemon-juice in combination with small doses of the tincture of the sesquichloride of iron, and in several instances have effected absorption of deposits which have resisted all other plans of treatment. A case of the above description was lately reported to me, in which like success attended the administration of the lemon-juice alone. The patient, a lady, had been a cripple for several years, and was eventually restored by persevering in the use of the remedy for six or eight weeks.
Limit Star Gazing
Some doctors claimed that “without sufficient intervals of repose” eyesight could be dimmed, damaged, or complete lost when reading in moonlight or when gazing at the moon, even with a telescope. So, the recommendation was to limit star gazing.
Mercury was dispensed in little blue pills, known as “blue mass.” It was prescribed for apoplexy (stroke or hemorrhage), constipation, depression, melancholy, toothache, and venereal disease. Sufferers were supposed to take one pill twice or three times a day. Of course, such doses, today would amount to levels deemed unsafe and result in mercury poisoning.
In Yeoman’s book a preparation for the removal of freckles included muriatic acid. The mixture was one drachm of muriatic acid, one pint of distilled water, and two drachms of eau de cologne (a perfume from Cologne, Germany). This was then applied with a sponge to a cleansed face and neck two or three times a day.
In the 1800s, many people objected to brushing their teeth both morning and night. However, one dentist suggested in Yeoman’s book that if you had to choose, brush at night. The dentist suggested “a tolerably hard brush,” brushing more at the back of the mouth than the front, and using “a tea-spoonful of tincture of myrrh to a tumbler of [warm] water.” The dentist had a reason for brushing at night versus the morning:
[T]eeth have the accumulations of the day on and around them; during the night the doors and windows of the room are closed, and probably we are snugly ensconced in bed, with the curtains drawn closely around us — a very bad practice, by the way — and thus we are inhaling a heated and unwholesome atmosphere … and all the deposit which should have been removed is diligently engaged in its work of destruction.
This was prescribed by Yeoman for chapped hands and consisted of 4 ounces of lard, 6 ounces honey, 8 ounces oatmeal, 3 egg yolks, and 1 ounce powdered gum arable. The honey and gum were mixed first, followed by the eggs and the lard. The well mixed combination was added to the oatmeal to form a paste. Supposedly, when used it left “the skin exceedingly soft and supple.”
A poultice is a warm, moist mass, made from herbs, and spread on a cloth or over the skin to relieve aching, inflamed, or painful spots on the body. In this case, a mustard poultice, made from powdered mustard was recommended for an inflamed sore throat.
Reading Aloud with the Teeth Closed
If you stammered, the suggestion was to read aloud with your teeth closed “for two hours a day, for three or four months.”
If you lisped, doctors had a cure. It was the RAPID and emphatic recital of the following as it was claimed it prove to be “an infallible cure for lisping.”
Hobbs meets Snobbs and Kobbs;
Hobbs bobs to Snobbs and Nobbs;
Hobbs nobs with Snobbs and robs Nobbs’ fobs.
“This is,” says Nobbs, “the worst of Hobbs’ jobs,” and Snobbs sobs.
Diarrhea was a common complaint in the 1800s. Gabriel Furman was an American lawyer, historian and politician from New York. He documented remedies and cures for several illnesses, of which diarrhea was one. For diarrhea he suggested “a tea cup full of rice well burned” be made into a beverage, just as if it were coffee. A full glass was to be taken every 20 to 30 minutes with a break of an hour or two. This was to be repeated four times and repeated as necessary.
Rum and Boiled Milk
Another cure by Furman that supposedly cured consumption consisted of equal proportions of Jamaican rum and boiled milk, sweetened with loaf sugar, and simmered together for fifteen minutes. Everyday a wine glass of this concoction was to be taken with warm milk.
Rum and Spirits of Turpentine
This cure also comes from Furman but could be flammable if you got too close to a fire. It was a combination of rum and spirits of turpentine that was rubbed on the sufferer “down the neck and chin” at night and morning.
Cancer could supposedly be cured with common sheep sorrel that grew in fields. After gathering sheep sorrel, it was pounded, placed on a pewter plate, and put in the sun. The heat from the sun turned the sorrel it into a salve, which was then applied to cancerous areas.
Stimulating Drinks and Whipping
Another cure suggested by Abbott was for poisoning by opium, “laudanum, morphine, paregoric, and sleeping mixtures in genera.” The cure was stimulating drinks, such as coffee, and, additionally, Abbott said the person should be kept warm, breathing, and “awake by whipping if necessary.”
Sugar, Salt, and Water
This cure also comes from Furman and was supposedly effective for cholera sufferers. It was a mixture of sugar, salt, and water, which was drank in large amounts.
Tobacco was thought to have curative properties, and its leaves were used to heal cuts, cure leprosy, and help gunshot wounds. However, sometime around the late 1820s, mistrust about tobacco began and people began to measure dosages. There were tinctures, salves, infusions and sometimes doses were applied through the rectum if you suffered from tetanus, worms, hydrophobia, constipation, or hernia. It was also smoked to prevent inflammation of the throat and nose. You could also apply tobacco juice to poisonous bites, and, according to Yeoman, it worked better than garlic on bee stings because tobacco relieved pain and reduced swelling. The recommendation was to “find it in the mouth-end of a smoked cigar, or in the reservoir of a German pipe. … The substance recommended is not, it must be remarked, the juice, but the empyreumatic oil; which … is a much more energetic poison than the juice.”
Toads were a common cure throughout the 1700s for a variety of diseases and they were said to cure everything from dropsy to bed wetting, scrofula, cancer, colic, inflammation, headaches, nose bleeds, smallpox, and quinsy. The toad was used in various forms: sometimes parts of the frog were cut off, sometimes it was cooked or boiled and eaten, and sometimes it was dried and converted into a powder that was used both internally and externally.
- Abbott, Lyman, The House and Home, 1896
- Beeton, Mrs. (Isabella Mary), The Book of Household Management, 1861
- Bell, John, M.D., Water, as a Preservative of Health, and a Remedy in Diseases: A Treatise on Baths, 1859
- Jean-Juste, Gary, The Cure Pamphlet Based on the 1800s Cure and Remedies as Preserved by Gabriel Furman in His Journals with Their Description and Ingredients, on Brooklyn Historical Society
- Medical Summary, 1899
- The Story Behind the Man: Gabriel Furman, on The Herbal Truth
- Yeoman, Thomas Harrison, M.D., The People’s Medical Journal and Family Physician, Vol. 1-4, 1850