Beacon Street Diary blog
"A Most Excellent Remedy"
Elder bark, succory root, rum, madeira, turpentine, quicksilver, hog’s lard, white lead, clove oil…
Snake oil cures for Covid-19? No, but good guess. These are some ingredients from medical “recipes” compiled in the mid-18th century by Congregational minister Ebenezer Parkman. Rev. Parkman, a Harvard graduate who resided mainly in Westborough, Mass., is most historically notable for the detailed diaries which he kept throughout his life. He also amassed a large amount of documentary material in the course of his daily affairs which provide a fascinating window into life in New England in the 1700s.
Separate collections of these materials are held across several cultural institutions including the Congregational Library & Archives, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Westborough Public Library. The Congregational Library & Archives digitized many of his personal and professional paper as a part of the New England Hidden Histories project, resulting in the confederation of physically disparate records, all of which can be found here.
Rev. Parkman’s medical remedies, for ailments as diverse as consumption [tuberculosis], dropsy [edema], jaundice, epilepsy, worms, lock-jaw, sore nipples, and “great fatigue” are kept in loosely bound notebooks and at first glance appear to be culinary recipes. At the time there was little distinction between the two, and indeed most manuscript cookbooks before the 20th century were interspersed with such remedies, many of which utilized common kitchen ingredients.
The notes comprise headings with the name of the particular ailment, followed by lists of ingredients and (often, but not always) relative amounts of each, and dosage instructions. The general sense is of a running roster of treatments jotted down as and when Rev. Parkman read or heard about them, creating a primitive version of a family first aid book – and he was indeed a family man, with no less than 16 children by his two wives, Mary Champney (d. 1736) and Hannah Breck, though as was common at the time, many of their offspring did not survive into adulthood.
Some of Rev. Parkman’s accumulated treatments seem to be derived from personal acquaintances or at least area locals, as in this fascinating account:
“Mr. Joseph Jacobs of Mansfield was cured of [scrofula] by a powder given him by an Indian at Middletown in Connecticut, which he has great reason to think was the root of meadow violet dried and pulverized”
Others are copied from newspapers, magazines, and similar publications:
“Frost Bitten: Fat of a dunghill fowl; rub the place affected with it morn and evening over a warm fire, and wrap it up with a piece of woolen cloth well greased with the said fat. It soon cures. See Boston Evening Post for January 21, 1765.”
“Against worms – White lead and linseed oil wonderfully cured a boy. See London Magazine for Aug. 1759.”
Locally-sourced remedies came to the fore during the Great Throat Distemper, a devastating outbreak of what was probably diphtheria. The Distemper ravaged most of New England from 1735 onwards, causing widespread childhood mortality. No less than three separate treatments for ‘the terrible & mortal throat disease’ are evidenced in Rev. Parkman’s papers. One is sourced “from Timothy Bryant in Middleborough” and one copied from The Boston Evening Post. The remedies contain a number of prescriptions almost guaranteed to make the condition worse, including ingesting mercury, bleeding the child “from under the tongue”, and induced vomiting. The third recipe (unattributed) also adds the unfortunate addendum: “in the beginning of the distemper use a plaster of dog’s dung & honey on the outside of the throat”.
It gets worse. Parkman goes on to note, for instance, that “The blood of a pigeon is a most excellent remedy in all wounds & contusions of the eyes” and blithely suggests, as a treatment for consumption, “The herb foxglove. Make a decoction in water or wine or half water half wine for ordinary drink.” (No dosage instructions are mentioned, which is rather unfortunate given the plant’s potentially deadly toxicity.)
It’s tempting to poke fun at the ignorance of our predecessors– something I admit I have done on many occasions, even as a trained historian. But Ebenezer Parkman and his contemporaries had no knowledge of germ theory, and limited understanding of sanitation and immunity. Inoculation, a precursor to vaccination, was controversially promoted in North America as early as the 17th century, by learned men such as the Rev. Cotton Mather, but medical science and epidemiology still had a long way to go.
Nowadays, we certainly don’t have the same excuse – but our supposedly rational modern society hasn’t yet eliminated the spread of medically unsound advice and snake oil salesmanship. Collodial silver, which sounds very much like something that might be included in one of Rev. Parkman’s medical recipes, was just proposed as a cure for the novel coronavirus by US televangelist Jim Bakker. Popular conspiracy theorist Alex Jones promoted the use of a toothpaste containing the same substance. Perhaps he could compliment his newly patented ‘paste with Rev. Parkman’s 1764 instructions on how to make and use a toothbrush:
“A Butcher’s skewer or the wood with which they are made, must be bruised a bit at the end, till with a little use it will become the softest and best brush for this purpose. Cleanse your teeth with this brush alone – only about once in a fortnight, not oftener, dip your skewer-brush into a few grains of gun-powder breaking them with the brush – wash the mouth well after the operation.”
Some of the alleged “cures” for Covid-19 being bandied about on social media are relatively benign, and perhaps even promote a modicum of wellbeing, though they are certainly no cure - garlic, hot baths, and “drinking lots of water”, for instance. Many of Parkman’s remedies are similarly innocuous, if ineffective, and in some cases sound downright pleasant to consume, such as this recipe “against weakness with a cough”:
One pound of raisins
½ pound figs
½ ounce liquorice
¼ ounce cloves beat up with a pound of sugar into a conserve
2 or 3 times a day
Never mind that sugar is likely an immunosuppressant - as is alcohol, frequently suggested as a recipe additive in Parkman’s notes, mainly in the form of wine and rum; one hopes that placebo effect was able to at least partially compensate.
However, you may well point to the horrifying addition of (among other things) “white lead” and “mercurial ointment” to some of Parkman’s recipes, as evidence of our ancestors’ laughable ignorance. But lo, what’s this from BBC news, March 8, 2020?
“YouTuber Jordan Sather, who has many thousands of followers across different platforms, has been claiming that a "miracle mineral supplement", called MMS, can "wipe out" coronavirus. It contains chlorine dioxide - a bleaching agent."
Turns out, we have a lot more in common with Rev. Parkman and his contemporaries than we might like to imagine. But we also have many more advantages: global epidemiology experts and advisors, a public health infrastructure with trained medical personnel, scientists working around the clock, and, despite some notable exceptions, a populace which is much better informed than they would have been 250 years ago. Still, I can think of no better time to meditate on the lessons of history, to look to our predecessors for perspective, insights into the peril of disease, and sometimes, warnings about “what not to do”.
Links to primary documents: