Toad Doctors: In England in the 1700 and 1800s

Toad doctors prescribed toads as they were thought to have medicinal qualities from early times, and in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches made “their ‘hell-broth’ ‘thick and slab;’ … [and] employed both toads and frogs in pharmacy and medicine.”[1]  However, before Macbeth, Roman physician, Pedanius Dioscorides, prescribed cooked frogs “in salt and oil as an antidote for the poison of serpents.”[2] Dioscordies seemed to be on to something because by the 1600 and early 1700s, other physicians and medical scientists, such as Michael Ettmüller or Antonio Vallisneri, suggested toads could be used to cure illness and disease. Later, toad doctors began to deal exclusively with toads, and they furthered the idea the toad had medicinal properties. Moreover, toad doctors offered a specific medicinal folk magic that remained popular in western England until the end of the nineteenth century.

Toads and Toad Doctors: Michael Ettmüller, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Michael Ettmüller. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because toads supposedly had medicinal qualities the whole toad was considered beneficial. The flesh of toads, dried and powdered, were considered diuretic and diaphoretic. One-half teaspoon of dried toad was swallowed to cure disease consider otherwise “intractable,” and its dried and powdered flesh was given “to promote a free flow of urine.”[3] The toad also supposedly made a soothing emollient and was useful for external inflammation and for cancerous ulcers. Live toads were also used. They were said to “be applied topically for headache, colic … cancer, [and cancerous breast].”[4] Toads were also touted to cure smallpox, quinsy, and the plague, and, reportedly, when the ashes of a toad were hung around the neck, as if an amulet, it cured bed wetting. Yet, perhaps, the disease most supposedly helped by the toad was a skin condition known as the “King’s Evil,” which today is called scrofula.

It was one the main diseases toad doctors focused on in the 1700 and 1800s. Scrofula includes a variety of skin diseases and is a form of tuberculosis that affects the lymph nodes in the neck. The most common signs and symptoms are the appearance of a chronic, painless mass in the neck that persists, swells, and grows larger over time. Scrofula first came to the forefront in the Middle Ages, when it was thought the royal touch of a sovereign could cure the disease and that is why it became known as the “King’s Evil.”

It did not take long before English sovereigns established a ceremony where they touched the affected person. Many people then visited their monarch to receive the royal touch, such as the future Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was touched as boy by Queen Anne in 1712 after his physician prescribed it. After the touch, the affected person received a coin valued between 6 shilling and 10 shillings, which became known as “Royal Touch-pieces.”  These touch-pieces and the monarchical touch continued to be prescribed by physicians into the early 1700s, until George I of England put an end to the practice.

Scrofula, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Scrofula. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With the end of the royal touch, it made way for toad doctors to claim they had remedies for scrofula. One nineteenth century remedy promoted at an annual gathering in Stalbridge, in Dorsetshire. It was known as the “Toad Fair,” and toad legs were torn off and “placed in bags and worn round the neck … for scrofula, and for those who had been ‘overlooked’ or bewitched.”[5] Another supposed scrofula cure promoted by toad doctors “was to enclose a live toad in a bag, and hang it up in a room in the faith that as the toad died and wasted away, so [too would] the disease … depart or the swelling be reduced.”[6] This, however, required a high degree of faith, for the toad might continue to remain alive in the bag for quite some time.

In Devonshire, in the 1870s, toad doctors approved a treatment for scrofula that involved the following:

“[D]ry the hind leg of a toad and wear it around the neck in a silken bag, or else … cut off the part of the living reptile which answers to the part affected by scrofula, and, having wrapped the fragment in parchment, tie it round the neck of the sufferer.”[7]

Toad doctors were frequently found traveling through the countryside in their gigs or at country fairs selling bags “containing the legs torn from the body of a living toad for six or seven shillings each.”[8] Sometimes they suggested toad powder be taken internally. To accomplish that required the following:

“Twenty great fatt [sic] toads … be stewed slowly, while alive, in a pipkin on the fire. The calcined remains [were] again heated, and then finely powdered.”[9]

However, toad doctors did not limit their prescriptions to stewed or powdered toads. “In cases of rheumatism a ‘wise man’ of Devonshire will burn a toad to ashes, and tie the dust in a bit of silk to be worn round the throat.”[10] In 1867, a Dr. Laville “recommended the venom of the toad [contained] … strong medicinal power in such diseases of the great nervous centres as epilepsy, rabies, paralysis, and somnambulism.”[11]

Thomas Rowlandson's Death and The Apothecary or the Quack Doctor, Courtesy of Wellcome Images

Thomas Rowlandson’s “Death and The Apothecary or the Quack Doctor.” Courtesy of British Museum.

Another issue that toads reputedly solved was bleeding. In the fourteenth century toads were regularly used to stopped bleeding because “it was thought that any loss of blood would instantly stop if the sufferer handled a toad which had been transfixed by a piece of wood, and dried in the shade, or smoke, [because the] ‘horror and fright constrained the blood to run into its proper place for fear of a beast so contrary to human nature.'”[12] Thus toads were also claimed to stop nosebleeds. To achieve this, patients in early times were told to lay a dried or live toad “on the back of the neck … [and supposedly] the contact of cold over the nuchal spine [would stop the bleeding].”[13] As it often worked, people in the 1700s continued to believe toads had curative and healthful properties. 

Nuchal Ligament, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Nuchal Ligament. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One interesting account of the curative properties of the toad that had nothing to do with scrofula or bleeding comes from the 1800s. It demonstrates the power of the toad and why people continued to believe in its medicinal benefits. In this case, an Italian woman, whose ornery husband was dying from dropsy, which is an old-fashioned term for edema, decided his death was taking too long. She was impatient, and so “caught a toad, and put it in his wine so that he should drink the draught and die; but instead of dying, he, to her astonishment and disgust, completely recovered.”[14] His recover resulted in the claim:

“This is precisely what the woman might have expected if she had … known the researches of modern physic, since the active principle of the secretion from a toad’s skin is phrynin, with an effect much resembling that of digitalis … which is par excellence the remedy for dropsy.”[15]

Although toad doctors hoped toads would cure disease, critics began to question their efficacy as early as the 1700s. By the 1800s, toad doctors and toads were frequently associated with words such as “superstition” and “quack.” H.J. Rogers wrote a letter to the editor of the Medical Times and Gazette in the 1850s. He summed up quackery in general after attending a medical lecture given by a Charles Fox, who Rogers claimed appended M.D. to the end of his name and was nothing but a quack:

“The gullibility of the English public is wonderful. Can you believe that, in enlightened England, in the nineteenth century there are people who could sit and listen to such palpable trash … Such, nevertheless, is the fact … [the supposed doctor] stated things that were … both improbable and impossible, [and] the applause he received from the assembled audience … surprised me, and I exclaimed to myself, ‘Can these things be?'”[16]

Villagers Clearing Out Rubbish. Three villagers transporting a parson, a doctor, and a lawyer to another parish. Courtesy of Library of Congress

“Villagers Clearing Out Rubbish.” Three villagers transporting a parson, a doctor, and a lawyer to another parish. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Because toad doctors began to be thought of as quacks, this resulted in many toad doctors being escorted out of town. One article from 1883 noted that stories of toads would fill a dozen volumes as they found in “folk-lore, legends, quack nostrums and superstitions.[17] In 1896, Frederick Starr, another toad critic, attributed many medical cures to faith rather than to the toad. He stated:

“Faith is terribly persistent … failure in mystic performances rarely makes skeptics; one success makes up for a thousand miscarriages. The most curious thing, however, in some of these superstitions is their currency in spite of the absolutely impossible conditions.”[18]


  • [1] Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 35, 1867, p. 635.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Fernie, William Thomas, Animal Simples, Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, 1899, p. 484.
  • [4] Harper’s Magazine, p. 635.
  • [5] Chambers, William, Chambers’s Journal, Vol. 73, 1896, p. 160.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Knowles, James, ed., The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 21, 1887, p. 916
  • [8] Fernie, William Thomas, p. 485.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] “Toads and Frogs,” Star, March 8, 1888, p. 3.
  • [11] Fernie, William Thomas, p. 489.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 484-485.
  • [13] Ibid. p. 485.
  • [14] Ibid. p. 486.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Medical Times, Vol. 26, 1852, p. 521.
  • [17] Browne, Francis Fisher, The Dial, Vol. 21, 1896, p. 38.

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