Open main menu
The Medicinal Virtue of Iron.[93]
Gilbert De Magnete IlloN.jpg
ot foreign to our present purpose will it be to treat briefly also of the medicinal virtue of iron: for it is a prime remedial for some diseases of the human body, and by its virtues, both those that are natural and those acquired by suitable preparation, it works marvellous changes in the human body, so that we may the more surely recognize its nature through its medicinal virtue and through certain manifest experiments. So that even those tyros in medicine who abuse this most famous medicament may learn to prescribe it with better judgment for the healing of the sick, and not, as too often they use it, to their harm. The best iron, Stomoma, or Chalybs, Acies, or Aciarium, is reduced to a fine powder by a file; the powder is steeped in the sharpest vinegar, and dried in the sun, and again soused in vinegar, and dried; afterwards it is washed in spring water or other suitable water, and dried; then for the second time it is pulverized and reduced on porphyry, passed through a very fine sieve, and put back for use. It is given chiefly in cases of laxity and over-humidity of the liver, in enlargement of the spleen, after due evacuations; for which reason it restores young girls when pallid, sickly, and lacking colour, to health and beauty; since it is very siccative, and is astringent without harm. But some who in every internal malady always talk of obstruction [ 34 ] of the liver and spleen, think it beneficial in those cases because it removes obstructions, mainly trusting to the opinions of certain Arabians[94]: wherefore they administer it to the dropsical and to those suffering from tumour of the liver or from chronic jaundice, and to persons troubled with hypochondrical melancholia or any stomachic disorder, or add it to electuaries, without doubt to the grievous injury of many of their patients. Fallopius commends it prepared in his own way for tumours of the spleen, but is much mistaken; for loadstone is pre-eminently good for spleens relaxed with humour, and swollen; but it is so far from curing spleens thickened into a tumour that it mightily confirms the malady. For those drugs which are strong siccatives and absorb humour force the viscera when hardened into a tumour more completely into a quasi-stony body. There are some who roast iron in a closed oven with fierce firing, and burn it strongly, until it turns red, and they call this Saffron of Mars; which is a powerful siccative, and more quickly penetrates the intestines. Moreover they order violent exercise, that the drug may enter the viscera while heated and so reach the place affected; wherefore also it is reduced to a very fine flour; otherwise it only sticks in the stomach and in the chyle and does not penetrate to the intestines. As a dry and earthy medicament, then, it is shown by the most certain experiments to be, after proper evacuations, a remedy for diseases arising from humour (when the viscera are charged and overflowing with watery rheum). Prepared steel is a medicament proper for enlarged spleen. Iron waters too are effectual in reducing the spleen, although as a rule iron is of a frigid and astringent efficiency, not a laxative; but it effects this neither by heat nor by cold, but from its own dryness when mixed with a penetrative fluid: it thus disperses the humour, thickens the villi, hardens the tissues, and contracts them when lax; while the inherent heat in the member thus strengthened, being increased in power, dissipates what is left. Whereas if the liver be hardened and weakened by old age or a chronic obstruction, or the spleen be shrivelled and contracted to a schirrus, by which troubles the fleshy parts of the limbs grow flaccid, and water under the skin invades the body, in the case of these conditions the introduction of iron accelerates the fatal end, and considerably increases the malady. Amongst recent writers there are some who in cases of drought of the liver prescribe, as a much lauded and famous remedy, the electuary of iron slag, described by Rhazes[95] in his ninth book ad Almansorem, Chap. 63, or prepared filings of steel; an evil and deadly advice: which if they do not some time understand from our philosophy, at least everyday experience, and the decline and death of their patients, will convince them, even the sluggish and lazy. Whether iron be warm or cold is variously contended by [ 35 ] many. By Manardus, Curtius, Fallopius and others, many reasons are adduced on both sides; each settles it according to his own sentiment. Some make it to be cold, saying that iron has the property of refrigerating, because Aristotle in his Meteorologica would put iron in the class of things which grow concreted in cold by emission of the whole of their Heat: Galen, too, says that iron has its consistency from cold; also that it is an earthy and dense body. Further that iron is astringent, also that Chalybeate water quenches thirst: and they adduce the cooling effect of thermal iron waters. Others, however, maintain that it is Warm, because of Hippocrates making out that waters are warm which burst forth from places where iron exists. Galen says that in all metals there is considerable substance, or essence, of fire. Paolo[96] affirms that iron waters are warm. Rhazes will have it that iron is warm and dry in the third degree. The Arabians think that it opens the spleen and liver; wherefore also that iron is warm. Montagnana recommends it in cold affections of the uterus and stomach. Thus do the smatterers cross swords together, and puzzle inquiring minds by their vague conjectures, and wrangle for trifles as for goats' wool, when they philosophize, wrongly allowing and accepting properties: but these matters will appear more plainly by and by when we begin to discuss the causes of things; the clouds being dispersed that have so darkened all Philosophy. Filings, scales, and slag of iron are, as Avicenna makes out, not wanting in deleterious power (haply when they are not well prepared or are taken in larger quantity than is fit), hence they cause violent pain in the bowels, roughness of the mouth and tongue, marasmus, and shrivelling of the limbs. But Avicenna wrongly[97] and old-womanishly makes out that the proper antidote to this iron poison is loadstone to the weight of a drachm taken as a draught in the juice of mercurialis or of Beet; for loadstone is of a twofold nature, usually malefiant and pernicious, nor does it resist iron, since it attracts it; nor when drunk in a draught in the form of powder does it avail to attract or repel, but rather inflicts the same evils.
The page and line references given in these notes are in all cases first to the Latin edition of 1600, and secondly to the English edition of 1900.

93 ^  Page 33, line 17. Page 33, line 15. Ferri vis medicinalis.—This chapter on the medicinal virtues of iron is a summary of the views held down to that time. Those curious to pursue the subject should consult Waring's Bibliotheca Therapeutica (London, 1878). Nor should they miss the rare black-letter quarto by Dr. Nicholas Monardus, of Seville, Joyfull Newes out of the New-found Worlde, translated by John Frampton (London, 1596), in which are recited the opinions of Galen, Rhazes, Avicenna, and others, on the medicinal properties of iron. In addition to the views of the Arabic authors, against whom his arguments are directed, Gilbert discusses those of Joannes Manardus, Curtius, and Fallopius. The treatise of Manardus, Epistolarum medicinalium libri viginti (Basil., 1549), is a résumé of the works of Galen and the Arabic physicians, but gives little respecting iron. Curtius (Nicolaus) was the author of a book, Libellus de medicamentis præparatibus et purgantibus (Giessæ Cattorum, 1614). The works of Fallopius are De Simplicibus Medicamentis purgentibus tractatus (Venet., 1566, 4to), and Tractatus de Compositione Medicamentorum (Venet., 1570, 4to).

94 ^  Page 34, line 7. Page 34, line 3. quorundã Arabum opiniones.—The Arabian authorities referred to here or elsewhere by Gilbert are:

Albategnius (otherwise known as Machometes Aractensis), Muhammad Ibn Jābir, Al-Battānī.

Avicenna (otherwise Abohali). Abou-’Ali al-’Hoséin ben-’Abd-Allah Ibn-Sinâ, or, shortly, Ibn Sîna.

Averroes. Muhammad Ibn Ahmed Ibn-Roschd, Abou Al-Walíd.

Geber. Abū Mūsā Jābir Ibn Haiyān, Al-Tarsūsi.

Hali Abas. ’Alí Ibn Al-’Abbás, Al Majúsi.

Rhazes, or Rasis. Muhammad Ibn Zakarīyā.

Serapio. Yuhanná Ibn Sarapion.

Thebit Ben-Kora (otherwise Thabit Ibn Corrah). Abū Thabit Ibn Kurrah, Al Harrani.

95 ^  Page 34, line 38.: Page 34, line 40. electuarium de scoria ferri descriptum à Raze.—Rhazes or Rasis, whose Arabic name was Muhammad Ibn Zakarīyā, wrote De Simplicibus, ad Almansorem. In Chap. 63 of this work he gives a recipe for a stomachic, which includes fennel, anise, origanum, black pepper, cinammon, ginger, and iron slag. In the splendid folio work of Rhazes publisht at Venice in 1542, with the title Habes candide lector Continẽtem Rasis, Libri ultimi, cap. 295, under the heading De Ferro, are set forth the virtues of iron slag: "Virtus scorie est sicut virtus scorie [a]eris sed debilior in purgãdo: et erugo ferri est stiptica: et cũ superpositur retinet fluxus menstruorũ.... Ait Paulus: aqua in qua extinguitur ferrũ calens.... Dico: certificatus sum experientia q˜ valet contra emorryodas diabetem et fluxum menstruorum."

96 ^  Page 35, line 16.: Page 35, line 13. Paulus.—This is not Fra Paolo Sarpi, nor Marco Polo, nor Paulus Jovius the historian, nor Paulus Nicolettus Venetus, but Paulus Aeginæ.

97 ^  Page 35, line 29.: Page 35, line 28. Sed malè Avicenna.—The advice of Avicenna to administer a draught containing powdered loadstone, reads as follows in the Giunta edition (Venice, 1608):

Lib. ii., cap. 470, p. 356. "Magnes quid est? Est lapis qui attrahit ferrum, quum ergo aduritur, fit hæmatites, & virtus ejus est sicut virtus illius.... Datur in potu [ad bibitionem limaturæ ferri, quum retinetur in ventre scoria ferri. Ipse enim extrahit] ipsam, & associatur ei apud exitum. Et dicitur, quando in potu sumuntur ex eo tres anulusat cum mellicrato, educit solutione humorem grossum malum."

The passage is identical with that in the Venetian edition of 1486, in both of which the liquid prescribed is mellicratus—mead. Gilbert says that the iron is to be given in juice of mercurialis. Here he only follows Matthiolus, who, in his Commentaries on Dioscorides, says (p. 998 of the Basil. edition of 1598): "Sed (vt idem Auicenna scribit) proprium hujusce ferrei pharmaci antidotum, est lapis magnes drachmæ pondere potus, ex mercurialis, vel betæ succo."

Serapio, in his De Simplicibus Medicinis (Brunfels' edition, Argentorati, 1531), p. 264, refers to Galen's prescription of iron scoriæ, and under the article de lapide magnetis, p. 260, quotes Dioscorides as follows: "Et uirtus huius lapidis est, ut quãdo dantur in potu duo onolosat ex eo cũ melicrato, laxat humores grossos."

The original passage in Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, ch. 147 (Spengel's edition of 1829) runs: "Τοῦ δὲ μαγνήτου λίθου ἄριστός ἐστιν ὁ τὸν σίδηρον εὐχερῶς ἕλκων, καὶ τὴν χρόαν κυανίζων, πυκνός τε κὰι οὐκ ἄγαν βαρύς. Δύναμιν δὲ ἔχει πάχους ἀγωγὸν διδόμενος μετὰ μελικράτου τριωβόλου βάρος· ἔνιοι δὲ τοῦτον καίοντες ἀντὶ αἱματίτου πιπράσκουσιν.."

In the Frankfurt edition of Dioscorides, translated by Ruellius (1543), the passage is:

"Magnes lapis optimus est, qui ferrum facile trahit, colore ad cœruleum uergente, densus, nec admodum gravis. Datur cum aqua mulsa, trium obolorum pondere, ut crassos humores eliciat. Sunt qui magnetem crematū pro hæmatite vendant...."

In the Scholia of Joannes Lonicerus upon Dioscorides In Dioscoridæ Anazarbei de re medica libros a Virgilio Marcello versos, Scholia nova, Ioanne Lonicero autore (Marburgi, 1543, p. 77), occurs the following:

"De recremento ferri. Cap. XLIX.

"Σκωρία σιδήρου. scoria vel recrementum ferri. Quæ per ignem à ferro et cupro sordes separantur ac reijciuntur, et ab aliis metallis σκωρία uocantur. Omnis scoria, maxime uero ferri exiccat. Acerrimo aceto macerauit Galenus ferri scoriam, ac deinde excocto, pharmacum efficax confecit ad purulentas quæ multo tempore uexatæ erant, aures, admirando spectantium effectu. Ardenti scoria uel recrementum ἕλκυσμα, inquit Galenus."

See also the Enarrationes eruditissimæ of Amatus Lusitanus (Venet., 1597), pp. 482 and 507, upon iron and the loadstone.