Impeccable Science, or, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Our collection includes a number of books containing scientific explanations and medical advice that are, by current standards, alternately alarming and comical.

For instance, our copy of Dr. Chase’s Recipes; or, Information for Everybody: an Invaluable Collection of About Eight Hundred Practical Recipes (from 1867) contains appealing cocktail recipes and some respectable recommendations for herbal remedies, as well as instructions for this medicinal ointment that sounds suspiciously like a pudding:

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MAGNETIC OINTMENT–SAID TO BE TRASK’S–Lard, raisins, cut into pieces, and fine-cut tobacco, equal weights; simmer well together, then strain and press out all from the dregs. The above is an excellent ointment, and looks like its namesake, and its action is really magnetic. Mix this in equal parts with the first Green Ointment No. 4, and it will make a good application in Piles, Salt-Rheum, and all cutaneous or skin diseases, as well as cuts, bruises, &c.

In 150 years, I’m confident that our current medical journals will elicit a good chuckle. That said, the facing page in this volume contains a tragicomic description of a young man whose fiancee won’t marry him until he rids himself of the scabs on his head.

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The treatment for such “very bad skin diseases” includes perseverance and a tincture including both corrosive sublimate (also known as mercury chloride) and sugar of lead (lead acetate), both of which may well remove scabs but which are now known to cause heavy metal toxicity.

(Mercury chloride was also a common treatment for syphilis in the age before antibiotics; its use is described in the folk ballad “The Unfortunate Rake”. Said rake’s presumable misfortune was an advanced case of syphilis, and he laments to his friend that had she but told me before she disordered me/ Had she but told me of it in time/ I might have got pills and salts of white mercury/ But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.)

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