[from the medical records dept] Sorcery, Body Parts, and Pharmaceuticals

[some of the following was originally posted by the Alienist last summer, but you really can’t get enough of this stuff]

In keeping with April’s mummy theme – soap cadavers, artists’ corpses – I now complete the trifecta with observations on the use of dead people as medicinals and ingestibles.

Cannibalism has existed for as long as there have been humans, and probably longer. It’s the societal revulsion at such behavior, and not the actual metabolic issues of the consumption, that renders the subject anathema. But the proscribed always fosters lurid fascination, and makes for good press.

Take, for example, the British Gazetteer on 3 May 1718, wherein was reported:

“We have intelligence from Lincoln [of] a man being hanged there … [who] within three days after his execution, [had] … apothecaries contract[] with a butcher for a sum of money, to take the body out of the grave, and cut off all the flesh, fit for them to make a skeleton of; which flesh he sold for venison to an inn-keeper; who making it into a pasty, invited many of his neighbors to the eating of it; but sometime after the villainy being detected, the butcher and the two apothecaries were committed to [the] Lincoln [jail].”

Accurate? I’m not certain. And with apologies to honest druggists everywhere, and even the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this is not really the flavor – pun intended – of today’s post. Instead, I wish to talk about the odd and surprisingly common archaic belief that noshing on the dead was somehow therapeutic, not just delicious. And we start with blood.

In order to restore vigor and youth, some medical practitioners of the late Middle Ages recommended drinking the blood of those not so aged. The physician Marsilio Ficino, in the 15th century, wrote, “why shouldn’t our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse… suck the blood of a youth? A youth who is willing, healthy, happy and temperate, [and] whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant. They will suck, therefore, like leeches, an ounce or two from a scarcely- opened vein of the left arm; they will immediately take an equal amount of sugar and wine; they will do this when hungry and thirsty and when the moon is waxing. If they have difficulty digesting raw blood, let it first be cooked together with sugar; or let it be mixed with sugar and moderately distilled over hot water and then drunk.”

Blood therapy was not a rare recommendation it appears.

Edward Taylor (c.1658–1702), a Puritan minister and lay physician in New England, wrote that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness [epilepsy].” In Denmark, the use of blood as a cure for epilepsy was widespread; it is documented that the sick and infirmed would gather under a scaffold hoping to catch the spilt blood of a freshly executed criminal for this very purpose. Many English physicians, too, believed in the curative potency of blood, and recommended it to patients as late as 1747.

Regarding other parts of the human corpus, physician [Nicholas] Lemery recommended mother’s milk for inflamed eyes, feces to heal sores, and skull, brain, fat, nails and “all the parts of man” to cure a variety of conditions in 16th century France.

axungia hominis (human fat)

axungia hominis (human fat)

In The Marrow of Physick (1669), Scotsman Thomas Brugis wrote, “a man’s skull that hath been dead but one yeare, bury it in the ashes behinde the fire, and let it burne untill it be very white, and easie to be broken with your finger; then take off all the uppermost part of the head to the top of the crowne, and beat it as small as is possible; then grate a nutmeg, and put to it, and the blood of a dog dryed, and powdered; mingle them all together, and give the sick to drinke, first and last, both when he is sick, and also when he is well, the quantity of halfe a dram at a time in white wine.”

Though a few formulas called for fresh, when fresh wasn’t available, dessicated would do; one of the most commonly advertised apothecary substances at that time was ground mummy, a preparation of the ancient remains of an embalmed or dried body from the distant sands of Araby. One 16th century surgeon, Ambrose Paré, noted that mummy was “the very first and last medicine of almost all our practitioners.”

Mummy heads were used to create plasters to assist with wound healing as late as 1750. Many practitioners were also prescribing “three drams of [crushed] human skull” for epilepsy, or “two ounces of mummy in a plaster against ruptures.” These forms of therapy, though, were beginning to fall from favor by the early 18th century as public opinion – not necessarily ‘science’ – turned against the practices.

That said, the best is never cheap, and mummy in 1678 was selling in London for 5s 4d for a pound! Thus, many apothecaries substituted, for a genuine Bedouin, cheap imitations that typically came from the corpses of east-side beggars, lepers, and plague victims.

Assuming one could afford it, perhaps the palate craved mummy with sweetener? Then mellified man, or human mummy confection, was for you. This was a legendary substance created by steeping a human cadaver in honey. Interestingly, it is only mentioned in a single Chinese source from the 16th century by one Li Shizhen, a pharmacologist relying on second hand hearsay (sound reliable?) Li wrote in his reference work, Bencao Gangmu, in the chapter entitled ‘Man as Medicine,’ that in the deserts far to the west, there were elderly men who would volunteer to undergo mummification in honey to create a medicinal suspension that would help their descendants. What separated this mellification process from simple body donation was that it had to commence ante-mortem. It was reported that the donor would stop eating all food other than honey. The donor would even bathe daily in honey. Soon, his feces became mellified, and even his sweat was said to be sweet and thick. When the diet or other illness finally proved fatal, the donor’s corpse would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey… for about a century. By then, the contents would have turned into a thick rich yellowish goo that was said to be capable of healing broken bones and curing other ailments. Li claimed that this was available in Middle Eastern bazaars at a very hefty price.

Maybe one desired mummy, with sweetener or without, but just couldn’t afford it? Fear not, for you too could still partake of the goodness of the body tissues of others. In one 17th century French kabbalist’s magic book (the genre often doubling as a medical text), there is listed what we would call today a sedative, tranquilizer, or anxiolytic, one guaranteed to defuse those with short tempers and violent tendencies.

It involved scraping and collecting the white skin from the tongue of a newborn on a clean piece of linen, and then secretly placing it under the infant’s bonnet during baptism. The tongue, with its ability to curse or bless, was considered a potent anatomical part. Thus activated, the tissue was said to calm the angry, though whether it had to be ingested or just placed in close proximity to a potential outburst remains vague.

At first glance, quack practices such as these seem far removed from our own advanced healthcare. However, the utilization of body parts in therapy still persists. Though blood transfusions and organ transplantations are dramatically different than drinking blood or eating flesh, such interventions do share a core belief in the human body as an instrument of healing.

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