The Cure-all Just Around the Corner
By Marjorie Howard
The history behind that infomercial's wonder drug maybe longer than you think
To stay healthy, it’s important to exercise, follow the proper diet, take herbal medicines and cleanse your entire system every once in a while. Sound like a modern-day, New Age prescription? Try Germany around 1600. That’s when Germans were questing after wonder drugs—medicines that would cure everything from syphilis to the plague.
Alisha Rankin, an assistant professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences, is studying popular cures in Germany during the early modern period, which spans the years from 1500 to 1700. She’s been delving into letters, apothecary inventories, medical advertisements and books, trying to better understand what people thought about health care, and hopes to write a book based on her research.
The idea of a cure-all did not originate in Germany. Homer talks about a “virtuous herb that kills all pain” in the Iliad, while classical Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder describe other herbal medicines. “If we get strep throat now we take penicillin and get better,” Rankin says. “But in the past, you would be sick for a long time, and because there were no effective measures, it was a pressing concern.”
Still, the depth and breadth of interest in cure-alls that emerged among denizens of early modern Germany was remarkable. “In all walks of life,” says Rankin, “pharmacy was a source of ever-increasing fascination.” While some hucksters and charlatans promoted wonder drugs, they were also widely prescribed by physicians and used by nobles and poor people alike.
People would trade recipes as well: against a cough, try this; for an earache, try that. Significantly, too, German medical self-help guides, offering techniques, recipes and ingredients for making drugs, were widely popular throughout Europe. The literate copied them and wrote about them in letters to relatives and friends, while illiterate individuals recommended cures by word of mouth.
A Dose of Rubies
“The medical landscape was diffuse,” Rankin acknowledges, but it was not as if there was no semblance of order at all. For example, physicians were responsible for problems inside the body, while surgeons were responsible for concerns outside the body, such as skin problems, wounds, lacerations and even balding—as big a concern then as now.
Nor was curing disease the only focus. Prevention was seen as key, and to that end, physicians were trained to recognize signs of the different “humors,” or temperaments—melancholic, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic—in their patients. Germans, like most Europeans, subscribed to the classical notion that the humors needed to be in balance, which meant that if you were possessed of a particular humor, you had seek out its opposite. If you were sanguine, which was characterized as hot and wet, you would be advised to eat foods that were cold and dry, for instance. “Everything from where your house was to the direction of the wind, to what you ate, how much sex you had, how much you slept—all these things were seen as affecting your health,” says Rankin.
Another general principle was that when illness did strike, people didn’t consult a professional right away. “The first recourse for medical care was the household, so the lady of the house, whether a high-status person or not, was seen as responsible,” Rankin says. Class differences determined what happened next. While upper-class people would go to a physician, the lower classes might go to a neighbor or barbers, who performed blood-letting.
Among the remedies that might be suggested were herbs, salts, clay, animal blood, calcified secretions from the stomach of a goat and tobacco: the fervent hope was that one of these would cure anything that ailed you. An especially popular prescription was distilled alcohol. “A lot of medicines—herbal compounds, animal compounds—wouldn’t make you feel that different, but with alcohol,” says Rankin wryly, “you’d notice quickly.”
For the rich, pearls and rubies were ground up and ingested. Even gold was incorporated into medicines.
In addition, some cures were imports from seemingly exotic lands. The wood of the South American guaiacum tree was promoted as a cure for syphilis. Terra sigillata, a type of clay from an island in the Aegean Sea, was formed into tablets, dried and stamped with the image of the goddess Artemis, a testament to its authenticity. It was used as both a cure-all and an antidote to poison. One German prince decided to test its qualities, Rankin says, and fed poison to eight dogs and then the clay to four of them. The four that ate the clay lived, resulting in a flurry of excitement. Word spread quickly about the clay’s qualities.
At the height of Germany’s enthusiasm for the cure-all in the mid-18th century, 143 panaceas were sold at pharmacies there. What ultimately changed medical culture, says Rankin, was the discovery of drugs that actually did some good, as numerous medicines—such as antibiotics, analgesics for pain relief and statins to lower cholesterol—were discovered.
Yet the rage for wonder drugs is far from over. Rankin sees many parallels between 16th century Germany and today, with herbal medicines and supplements still popular and some practices remaining the same. One of the early cures, Glauber salts, was discovered in 1658 and is still used as a laxative.
Indeed, the more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same. “Just recently I read an article about juice purges,” Rankin says. “You drink juice and nothing else for a week, and that’s supposed to clear out your system.” The trouble is that “apparently there’s no scientific basis for it.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.