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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/June 1891/The Pearl of Practice


THE Wakefield family have always been very proud of tracing their descent from an old English doctor who came to this country in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Proudly they show the various relics of this highly respected ancestor—his old battered silver snuff-box, with dim, worn inscription, telling that it was a gift from a scion of nobility, who thus rewarded his medical man for service done in his cause; the comical night-cap which once covered the dear doctor's revered head, a pair of shoe-buckles, a few buttons from his small-clothes, and last, but not least, an old account-book and book of prescriptions. The account-book opens of itself at the pages where noble names are most often inscribed: "A purge for Lady Mary Brown"; an emetic (the good doctor uses a more Shakespearean word) for Lady Betty Smith, a draught for this lord, a blister for that, etc.

We turn with due consideration the thin, yellow pages, covered with fine, faded writing, still perfectly legible, queerly spelled. The book of prescriptions, The Pearl of Practice, is so old, so near dropping in pieces, that it surely has to be taken up tenderly, handled with care. It has every appearance of great age, and we are not surprised to learn that it was printed in London two hundred and seven years ago. The ancient volume shows evidence of much consultation. We open it with respect, which quickly turns to righteous horror and indignation as we peruse the crumbling pages. We can only hope that this venerated disciple of Æsculapius practiced mostly in his own country, and did not work fell disaster in the struggling colonies of America. Truly British brawn and the accessory of England's climate were needed even for the "survival of the fittest" if many of these strange and wonderful prescriptions were followed. Even so early in our history the Americans were far too "nervous" to bear many such heroic doses, even if the true nature of the ingredients could have been concealed. Perhaps we have always had a leaning toward the "new school" of medicine; a little study of these old pages quite convinced us of it. But we fancy the most conservative physician of the "old school" to-day would not go very far by this queer little book.

In the first place, one would have to be the happy possessor of an independent fortune to be able to compound many of the remedies; no drug-store would carry such expensive materials. "Amber-greece," pearls, coral, and gold were in as common use then as quinine has been during the recent reign of la grippe.

The following powder comes in the list of "Choice Physical and Chirurgical Receipts." We are not told in what disease or diseases it is warranted to kill or cure. A "universal remedy," mayhap; should judge it to be powerful:

"The Bishop of Worcester's admirably curing Powder.—Take black tips of Crabs' claws when the Sun enters into Cancer, which is every year on the eleventh day of June; pick and wash them clean, and beat them into fine powder, which finely searce; then take Musk and Civet, of each three grains, Amber-greece twelve grains, rub them in the bottom of the Mortar, and then beat them and the powder of the Claws together; then with a pound of this powder mix one ounce of the magistery of Pearl.[1] Then take ten skins of Adders, or Snakes, or Slow-worms, cut them in pieces and put them into a pipkin to a pint and a half of Spring-water; cover it close, and set it on a gentle fire to simmer only, not to boyl, for ten or twelve hours, in which time it will be turned into Jelly, and therewith make the said powder into balls.

"If such skins are not to be gotten, then take six ounces of shaved Harts-horn, and boyl it to a jelly, and therewith make the said powder into balls; the horn must be of a red Deer killed in August, when the Moon is in Leo, for that is best.

"The Dose is seven or eight grains in beer or wine."

There are many references to "the Plague," from "an excellent perfume against the Plague," to strange drinks and medicines to be used both before and after "infection." We will give the oldest receipt first:

"A Drink for the Plague or Pestilent Fever, proved by the Countess of Arundel, in the Year 1603.—Take a pint of Malmsey, and burn it, and put thereto a spoonful of grains, being bruised, and take four spoonfuls of the same in a Porringer, and put therein a spoonful of Jean Treacle, and give the Patient to drink as hot as he can suffer it, and let him drink a draught of the Malmsey after it, and so sweat: if he be vehemently infected he will bring the Medicine up again; but you must apply the same very often day and night till he brook it, for so long as he doth bring it up again there is danger of him; but, if he once brook it, there is no doubt of his recovery by the Grace of God; provided then when the party infected hath taken the aforesaid Medicine and sweateth, if he bring it up again then you must give him the aforesaid quantity of Malmsey and grains, but no Treacle, for it will be too hot for him, being in a sweat. This Medicine is proved, and the party hath recovered, and the sheets have been found full of blew marks, and no sore hath come forth; this being taken in the beginning of the sickness. Also this medicine saved thirty-eight Commons of Windsor the last great Plague 1593, was proved on many poor people, and they recovered."

In "The King's Medicine for the Plague," a very simple herb drink, one is assured that after taking it the first day "You shall be safe four-and-twenty days, after the ninth day a whole year by the grace of God." This next remedy for the plague would hardly be found available in a great city; the poor people of plague stricken London were, one fears, never able to profit by it, as it calls for wholesale slaughter, not of the innocents, but of as harmless feathered bipeds. "Mr. Winlour," whoever he may be, who found this prescription so effectual, was no doubt a suburban gentleman with cock-chicks galore at his command:

"A Medicine for the Plague which the Lord Mayor had from the Queen.—Take of Sage, Elder, and red Bramble leaves, of each one little handful; stamp and strain them together through a cloath with a quart of White-wine; then take a quantity of White-wine-Vinegar, and mingle them together; and drink thereof morning and night a spoonful at a time nine days together, and you shall be whole. There is no medicine more excellent than this, when the sore doth appeare, than to take a Cockchick and pull it, and let the Rump be bare, and hold the Rump of the said Chick to the sore, and it will gape and labour for life and in the end die; then take another, and the third, and so long as any one do dye; for when the poyson is quite drawn out the Chick will live, the sore presently will assuage, and the party recover. Mr. Winlour proved this upon one of his own Children, the thirteenth Chick dyed, the fourteenth lived, and the party cured."

Cock-chicks, especially "running" ones, were in great demand in those bygone days; they enter into the composition of many of these "excellent receipts" either in an active or passive state.

"Cock-water for a Consumption.—Take a running Cock-chick, pull him alive, then kill him, cut him abroad by the back, take out the entrails and wipe him clean, then quarter him and break his bones, then put him into a Rose-Water Still with a pottle of Sack, Currans, and raisins of the Sun stoned, and figs sliced, of each one pound, Dates stoned and cut small half a pound, Rosemary Flowers, Wild Time, Spearmint, of each, one handful, Organs or wild Marjoram, Bugeloss, Pimpinel, of each two handfuls, and a pottle of new milk from a red Cow. Distill these with a soft fire, put in the Receiver a quarter of a pound of brown Sugar candy beaten small, four grains of Amber-greece, forty grains of prepared Pearl, and half a book of leaf gold cut very small; you must mingle the strong water with the small, and let the Patient take two spoonfuls of it in the morning and as much at going to bed."

Although this precious Pearl of Practice was published more than fifty years before Mark Twain's Majestic Literary Fossil, the virtues of "Aqua Limacum" (in this treasure called "A Special Water for a Consumption") were well known even at that early age. Delicious compound! most truly strengthening and reviving, with its "peck of garden shell snails" bruised in a mortar, shells and all, quart of earth-worms "ripped up" and "scoured with salt," combined and distilled with herbs too numerous to give here. Horrors!

One would surely prefer some of the greatly advertised "emulsions" of the present century. We can not believe that such, slow creatures as snails were ever very common in the "rapid" life of America. So we trust that our beloved forebears were not dosed with many snail elixirs. One might consent to their use in "anointing," but draw the line at drinking their juices.

"To Anoint the Ricketed Child's Limbs, and to recover it in a short time, though the Child be so lame as to go upon Crutches.—Take a peck of Garden Snails and bruise them, put them in a coarse Canvas Bag, and hang it up, and set a dish under it to receive the liquor that droppeth from them, therewith anoint the Child in every joynt which you perceive to be weak, before the fire every morning and evening. This I have known make a Child that was extream weak to go alone, using it only a weeks time."

By the many receipts given for curious oyls, plaisters, oyntments, and salves, one judges that the efficacy of "outward applications" was seldom called in question.

"Oyl of Swallows" attracts one's attention; it would be very hard to "make." What kind of swallows? where could one find them, and how catch them? "Take Swallows as many as you can get, ten or twelve at least, and put them quick into a Mortar." Alive or dead? feathers and all? we query. Unto these "pounded" swallows are added many herbs and spices. "Neat's-foot Oyl or May butter," much "wax and a pint of Sellet-Oyl," the whole mess strained through a canvas cloth. Truly a fine oil for divers complaints. From the salves we of course choose the "chief," and one we must believe used by nobility if not royalty:

"Sir Edward Tertil's Salve called the chief of all salves.—Take Rosin eight ounces, Virgins wax and Frankincense, of each, four ounces, Mastick one ounce, Harts suet four ounces, Camphire two Drams, beat the Rosin, Mastick and Frankincense in a Mortar together to fine powder; then melt the Rosin and Wax together, then put in the powders; and when they are well melted strain it through a cloath into a pottle of white Wine, and boyl it together till it be somewhat thick; then let it cool, and put in the Camphire and four ounces of Venice Turpentine drop by drop, lest it clumper, stirring it continually, then make it up into Rolls, and do with it to the pleasure of God, and health of man.

"The Vertues and use of it: 1. It is good for all wounds and sores old or new, in any place. 2. It cleanseth all Festers in the flesh, and heals more in nine days than other salves cure in a month. 3. It suffers no dead flesh to engender or abide where it comes. 4. It cureth the Head-ach, rubbing the Temples therewith. 5. It cures a salt fleam Face. 6. It helpeth Sinews that grow stiff, or spring with labour, or wax dry for want of blood. 7. It draweth out rusty Iron, Arrow heads, Stubs, Splints, Thorns, or whatever is fixed in the flesh or wound. 8. It cureth the biting of a mad Dog, or pricking of any venomous creatures. 9. It cureth all Felons or white-flaws. 10. It is good for all festering Cankers. 11. It helpeth all Aches of the Liver, Spleen, Kidneys, Back, Sides, Arms or Legs. 12. It cureth Biles, Blanes, Botches, Imposthumes, Swellings, and Tumors in any part of the body. 13. It cureth Scab, Itch, Wrenches, Sprains, Strains, Gouts, Paulsies, Dropsies, and waters between the flesh and skin. 14. It healeth the Hemorrhoids or Piles in Man or Woman. 15. Make a search-cloth thereof to heal all the above-said Maladies, with very many others which for brevity sake are omitted."

A "Balsam" of use for infected brains may appeal to the overtaxed student:

"To cure Diseases without taking anything at the mouth.—Take one pound of Aloes Hepatica, Myrrhe four ounces, both beaten very fine, Aquavitæ, and Rose-water, of each one pint; after one nights infusion distill them in Sand twenty four hours very softly, and in the end make a great fire, and there will come a Balsam wherewith if you rub the Stomach with a warm cloath dipped therein, it will Purge Phlegm and Choler, and all worms which infect the brain, and breed the Falling-sickness, it expelleth corruption of the Stomach, it helps digestion and appetite, it expurgeth all dross in the bottom of the Stomach, it cureth the Gout being mixed and well beaten with Aquavitæ, and applyed warm to the Gouty place and left long on it."

Here is a genuine faith-cure of "y(e) olden time," though for that matter most of these ancient prescriptions require faith as well as courage in the patients partaking of the strange admixtures:

"To cure a Wound, though the Patient be ever so far off.—Take a quart of pure Spring water, and put into it some Roman Vitrol and let it dissolve, then if you have any blood of the wound either in linnen or wollen or silk, put the cloth so blooded into the water, and rub the cloth once a day, and if the wound be not mortal, the blood will out, if it be, it will not. Let the Patient keep his wound clean, washing it with white wine; when ever you wash the cloth, the Party wounded shall sensibly find ease; let the cloth be constantly in the water."

One is hardly surprised to find, among the other horrors in these medicinal compounds, that "dung" of various and suDdry kinds plays an important part. Read this rare combination of game and fertilizing materials, in juxtaposition with the household "staff of life":

"Dr. Baffa, an Italian. An approved Receipt to break the Stone in the Kidneys.—In the Month of May distill Cowdung, then take two live Hares, and strangle them in their blood; then take one of them, and put it into an earthen vessel or pot, and cover it well with a mortar made of Horsedung and Hay, and bake it in an Oven with household bread, and set it still in the Oven for two or three days, baking it anew with anything, until the Hare be baked or dryed to powder; then beat it well, and keep it for your use. The other Hare you must flea, and take out the guts only; then distill all the rest, and keep this water; then take at the new and full of the Moon, or any other time, three mornings together as much of this powder as will lie on a sixpence, with two spoonfuls of each water, and it will break any stone in the Kidneys."

Then this "pretty" drink:

"The Lady Gorings Water for an Ague, sickness or foulness in the Stomach, and to purge the blood.—Take dung of a stone-horse that is kept in the stable, when it is new made, mingle it well with Beer and a little Ginger, and a good quantity of Treacle, and distill in an ordinary still; give of this a pretty draught to drink."

Truly loathsome, perfectly disgusting, we say; "reely nasty," "beastly," perhaps our English cousins said.

We often hear people complain of the elongation of the palate (uvula), and they have recourse to many remedies, surgical and otherwise; even if one could believe that the uvula could be affected from the top of the head, through skull, brains, and all, would the "cure" here given work on a thick head of hair, or is it only applicable to the bald-headed?

"To draw up the Uvula.—Take a new-laid Egg, and roast it till it be blue, and then crush it between a cloath, and lay it to the Crown of the Head, and once in twelve hours lay new till it be drawn up."

"Dr. Adrian Gilbert's most Soveraign Cordial Water" contains, among other things too numerous to mention, from one to two pounds each of thirty-nine different plants, "two pounds of shaved Hartshorn, twelve ounces of Ivory, a goodly quantity of Clarret wine and best Malaga Sack" all distilled.

When small-pox, plague, spotted fevers, and ordinary fevers are abroad in the land, "if one take, in time of infection, two spoonfuls of this Cordial water in good Beer or white Wine he may safely walk from danger by the leave of God."

Another "Soveraign Water" of Dr. Stephens's, "which he a long time used, wherewith he did many cures; he kept it secretly till a little before his death, and then he gave it to the Lord ArchBishop of Canterbury, in writing." It does not differ greatly from the preceding, but oh the virtues of it!

"The Virtues of this Water.—It comforts the Vital Spirits, and helps all inward Diseases that come of cold; it is good against the shaking of the Palsie; it cures the contraction of the Sinews; it kills the Worms in the Belly and Stomach; it cures the cold Dropsie, and helps the Stone in the Bladder, and in Reins of the Back; it helps shortly the stinking breath, and whosoever useth this Water morning and evening (and not too often) it preserveth him in good liking and will make him seem young very long, and comforteth Nature marvelously; with this water did Mr. Stephens preserve his life till extreme age would not let him go or stand; and he continued five years when all the Physicians judged he would not live a year longer, nor did he use any other Medicine but this."

Another "Aqua Miraoilis, Sir Kenelm Digby's way," is more simple in build but as wonderful in effect.—"This water preserveth the Lungs without grievances, and helpeth them; being wounded, it suffereth not the blood to putrifie, but multiply eth the same; this water suffereth not the heart to burn, nor Melancholy, nor the Spleen to be lifted up above nature; it expelleth the Rhume, preserveth the Stomach, Conserveth youth, and procureth a good colour; it preserveth memory; it destroyeth the palsie; if this be given to one a dying, a spoonful of it reviveth him; in the Summer use one spoonful a week fasting, in the Winter two spoonfuls."

If one can judge by the number of prescriptions given, smallpox was more common two hundred years ago than measles now. "Megrims," "melancholy fumes," "fainting of the heart," "passion" of the same, were as well known as the "nervous prostration" of these later days.

We fail to see the true meaning in the title of the receipt next in order. Does the patient (poor victim!) or the mixture of longnamed ingredients "hum"? And why "damnable"?

"A Receipt to make Damnable Hum.—Take spices de Gemmis Aromaticum Rofatum, Diarrhodon Abbatis, Letificans Galeni, of each four drams, Loaf-sugar beaten to a powder half a pound, small Aqua Vitse three pints, strong Angelica water one pint; mix all these together, and when you have drunk it to the Dregs, you may fill it up again with the same quantity of water. The same powders will serve twice, and after using it it must be made new again."

Some of the receipts have been "proved"; for instance:

"The Lady Drury's Medicine for the Colick, Proved.—Take a turf of green grass, and lay it to the Navil, and let it lye till you find ease, the green side must be laid next to the belly."

Another was "Proved by Mrs. Joyce, Widow.".

We must finish our study of this most fascinating, quaint little leather-bound volume; but strange title attracts us here, a stranger ingredient there, and it is hard to stop—for example: "A very good glyster for the Wind." "Syrup of Turnips." "A purging Juleb." "A Vomit for an Ague." "A Cordial Electuary for Stuffing of the Stomach." "For a Noli me tangere." "For pin and web in the eye."

Scraped amber taken in hot broth is a truly "precious" draught for fainting.

For stomach-ache one is told to cut "scarlet" into the shape of a heart, wet it in strongest cinnamon or wormwood water, heat it, and lay very hot to the stomach.

"The Claws of a Goat burned to Powder"; "Unicorns-horn"; "Blue Lilly roots"; "Woodlice, dried, and made into fine powder"—all to be taken internally! Split salt herrings applied to the feet in fever.

Let us be thankful that we live in this nineteenth century, albeit one of multitudinous patent medicines, hypnotism, Christian science, and magnetic and electric remedies. We humbly trust that what little medicine we are forced to take will better bear analyzing than the strange pharmaceutical compositions of animal, vegetable, and mineral matters gleaned from the Wakefield heirloom. We return this treasure with many thanks. It is eagerly seized and quickly locked up in the grandfather's desk almost as ancient as itself. We are assured that it is regarded as a priceless "Pearl," and worth more to its owners (from its antiquity and associations rather than its intrinsic value, we suppose) than its weight many times over in purest gold.

  1. "To make true Magistery of Pearl.—Dissolve two or three ounces of fine seed Pearl in distilled Vinegar, and when it is perfectly dissolved, and all taken up, pour the Vinegar into a clean glass bason; then drop some few drops of Oyl of Tartar upon it, and it will cast down the Pearl into fine powder, then pour the Vinegar clean off softly, then put to the Pearl clear Conduit or Spring water; pour that off and do so often until the taste of the Vinegar and Tartar be clean gone, then dry the powder of Pearl upon warm embers and keep it for your use."