Medicinal uses for slugs and snails and puppy dogs

Taking a look at bizarre medical remedies from the past.

‘What the apothecary ordered: questionable cures through the ages’, edited by Caroline Rance

This engaging book is a pocket-sized compilation of bizarre and sometimes gruesome medical and surgical remedies culled from sources dating from Ancient Greece through to the early 20th century.

Among the materia medica featured in the book are slugs and snails and puppy dogs (though not their tails), all found in alarming 17th century recipes. Slugs were used to make an eye lotion for conjunctivitis, while snails were the source of a syrup for tuberculosis. And readers of the 1656 ‘Poor man’s physician and chyrurgion’ were advised that “oyl of puppy” was “good for any strain or bruise”. If you wish to try it, take an obese puppy, preferably a spaniel, prepare it for the oven, stuff it with the specified mixture of egg yolk, nettles, turpentine and saffron and then sew it up and roast it, collecting the “oyl” that oozes from it.

Some of the remedies are disturbing without relying on weird ingredients. For example, a 16th century cure for night cramps depends on sniffing your fingers after rubbing them between your toes — preferably when your feet are at their smelliest. And a wince-inducing 17th century cure reads: “If a man bleed at the Nose, take a leathern point or lace, and tye it about his Testicles or Yard, and that will make the blood leave Mars, and run to look after Venus.”

In total, the book reproduces some 100 remedies, set out within five themed chapters. Each is given its own page, and the book also includes 70 full-page illustrations, likewise drawn from a wide range of historical sources. My one complaint is that although the book gives the origin of each remedy, it fails to offer even a scrap of information about any image other than to acknowledge the picture library that supplied it.

By the way, my favourite formulation, from an Anglo-Saxon collection of medical texts, is a salve against nocturnal goblin visitors, made by boiling a mixture of herbs in butter. Since I tried it, my nights have not once been troubled by malevolent supernatural beings.


‘What the apothecary ordered: questionable cures through the ages’, edited by Caroline Rance. Pp175 Price £7.99. Oxford: Osprey Publishing; 2014. ISBN 978 1 90840 286 8

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 20/27 December 2014, Vol 293, No 7841/2;293(7841/2):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20066982

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