Types of Medicinal Cures in Georgian and Regency Eras

Various medicinal cures existed in the Georgian and Regency eras. For instance, leeches were used to bleed patients suffering from specks in their cornea. Leeches were also applied on a patient’s arms when irritation was apparent, to the temples if no irritation existed, and Eliza de Feuillide, cousin to Jane Austen, was told by her doctor to use leeches after she developed swelling in her breast. For patients who suffered from syphilis, psora, or certain types of herpes, medical soaps might be recommended, and, if you had a goiter, the cure was to drink white wine and wear a bag of ammonia around your neck.


Leech (Hirudo medicinalis) in the process of sucking blood. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although the above treatments may seem unusual, these type of medicinal cures were considered common in the Georgian or Regency eras. Other common treatments included baths, blistering, boluses or pills, cataplasms, collyria, enemata, fomentations, fumigations, gargles, injections, juleps, liniments, ointments, potions or draughts, powders, and tisanes (also sometimes spelled ptisans). A brief description of each treatment follows:

BATHS. This was a liquid into which the body was plunged, either partially or wholly. Baths could last for a short or long time and there were several types of baths. Some allowed for cutaneous absorption, some excited the skin, and some offered emollient or aromatic aid. There was also a type of bath called an affusion. It was used primarily for cerebral afflictions, and the patient sat in a warm bath while getting doused with cold water. Douches were cold or warm baths that had the water fall from a certain height onto the affected body part. Additionally, water showers were directed onto the heads of the insane while they sat in a warm bath. To learn more about baths click here.

Bathing for health. Author’s collection.

BLISTERING.  Blistering, also sometimes known as vesiculation, raised a blister on the skin and was used to correct a wide variety of health problems. These problems included hysteria, hypochonriasis, gout, certain types of simple inflammation, and fevers. To learn more click here.

BOLUSES or PILLS. The difference between boluses and pills was the weight. Pills weighed less than six grains and boluses weighed more than six grains. If pills or boluses were taken and passed through the intestines without performing their action properly, it was suggested that the patient also take a few spoonfuls of TISANE because it made the pill or bolus more effective. Pills or boluses were used as astringents, anti-hysterics, antispasmodics, diuretics, and purgatives. They were also used for such conditions as gangrene, epilepsy, fevers, delirium, dropsy, and herpes.

CATAPLASMS. Cataplasms were soft, pultaceous (macerated or nearly fluid) compositions that accumulated heat and formed a sort of bath. They were made from pulps, powders, or farina combined with either pure water, plant decoctions, or milk. They were warm and placed over the whole body and sometimes oils, fats, and ointments were added to them.

COLLYRIA. These preparations were liquid eye washes applied to the eyes. They were created from infusions, decoctions, or distilled waters. (An infusion involved extracting chemical compounds or flavors from plant material in a solvent such as water, oil, or alcohol, whereas a decoction involved boiling plant material or percolating it the same way a person would prepare coffee.)

ENEMATA. Enematas produced an emollient or purgative effect in the intestinal tract. They were injected in small quantities and in instances of abdominal inflammation, people used what they termed an “internal bath” to help reduce the swelling. Enematas were also used for such conditions as diarrhea or constipation, dysentery, syphilis, putrid fevers, and nervous disorder.

FOMENTATIONS. Such remedies consisted of applications to the body of fluid using either a piece of flannel or a sponge. The idea was to create a tepid sort of bath and fomentation could last for short or long periods of time, depending on whether or not it was warm, as cold fomentations were thought to be more often harmful than useful. Fomentations were usually prepared from infusions or decoctions using mucilaginous or narcotic plants.

FUMIGATIONS. These were achieved with medical vapors and designed to form a general or local bath. They were often used against skin diseases and, in particular, thought to help with venereal disease, as the skin was usually affected. There were different kinds of fumigations, including sulfurous, mercurial, alcoholic, and aromatic. Fumigation was also thought to purify the air through a chemical combinations of gases. Fumigation was frequently administered with boiling water and a curved tube placed under a patient’s bed covers with the patient’s bed clothes raised by a small wooden frame. If you are interested in reading about one particularly interesting fumigation practice related to venereal disease, click here.

GARGLES. These liquid preparations affected the throat or mouth. Their were different kinds, including antiseptics, astringents, emollients, detergents, etc. The idea was that the patient allowed the gargle to rest on the affected parts by throwing the head back but not swallowing the gargle.

INJECTIONS. These liquid compositions were similar to fomentations and injected into external auditory passages, the urethra, the bladder, and fistulous cavities. They were used for chronic discharges that caused debility and occurred after inflammation.

JULEPS. This referred to potions or draughts taken in one dose. See POTIONS or DRAUGHTS for more information.

LINIMENTS. These were liquid and unctuous preparations and usually relied on oil as the base. They were rubbed in forcibly but not enough to cause irritation. Sometimes liniments were stimulants and used for such things as chronic rheumatic pains. Other times they were used as an antispasmodic for the abdomen. They were also used for glandular enlargements, venereal tumors, rickets, nervous pains, and after certain types of baths.

OINTMENTS. The French differentiated between ointments, cerates, and pommades whereas the English did not. The differences between the three substances involved the proportions of their ingredients. Additionally, ointments and cerates were to be perfectly smooth. Cerates also had a different consistency than ointments, as they were half between an ointment and a plaster, and pommades were designated as such because they always had a fatty base. However, all three were applied externally to wounds or ulcers.

POTIONS or DRAUGHTS. These liquid preparations, sometimes also called TONICS, were composed of infusions, decoctions, or distilled waters to which syrups, extracts, powders, or salts were added. They were also prepared in the quantity of one dose and often consisted of six or eight ounces. They functioned as emetics, laxatives, purgatives, expectorants, etc. and were used for such conditions as coughs, convulsions, hysteria, epilepsy, digestive issues, fevers, scrofula, dropsy, inflammation, violent pain, or sedentary.

POWDERS. These were usually suspended in some form of liquid, although they could also be added to pastes. Additionally, they could be used both externally and internally and were used for a wide variety of medicinal issues, such as fever, venereal diseases, and scrofulous, or even diarrhea.

TISANES or PTISANS. These were ordinary drinks prepared by infusion or decoction of leaves, flowers, barks, or roots and occasionally contained salts or animal substances. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte once had a cough at Longwood and took an orange-leaf ptisan to cure it. They drinks were usually administered by the cupful and could be taken cold or warm. The more helpful ones added syrups, salts, wines, tinctures, etc., while those of little nutritive value chiefly relieved thirst. For more on tisanes, click here.

medicinal cures in the Georgian and Regency eras

“A Going! A Going!” by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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