Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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Amazing ambergris

Why one man’s whale poop is another’s medical gold

Every regular reader of Doctor’s Review knows there’s no end to the supply of strange cures employed in the treatment of disease over the centuries. Borne either from sincerity, desperation or greed, the wondrous depths of the doctor’s little black bag and the pharmacist’s cabinet have produced everything from bezoar stones and bovine urine to quinine and quicksilver. Like legions of Ponce de Leóns questing after the Fountain of Youth, generations of physicians, scientists and patients have explored remote jungles, climbed treacherous mountainsides and logged endless lab hours, picking over the planet for every possible speck it might have in the war against disease, pain and death.

In the end, most miracles turn out to be snake oil; others, however, like mold and digitalis, continue to save countless lives to this very day. Of all the mythical, magical medical cures on the record, ambergris might very well be the most ludicrous and far-fetched “medicine” of them all.

Quite simply, ambergris is hardened sperm whale emesis or feces, depending on who you ask since technically nobody has ever seen a whale expel it. It consists primarily of undigested squid and cuttlefish beaks — the sperm whale’s main food — mixed with fatty digestive fluids.

Fresh ambergris, churned at hundreds of pounds at a time, is a black, putrid, gelatinous, fecal-smelling mess. But after floating in the ocean for about 10 years, exposed to the salt and sun and sea air, these unpalatable globs harden into greyish masses. Lighter than water, they bob along aimlessly until plucked from the waves from passing whalers or fishermen, or until they wash ashore to be found by some lucky soul.

Also known as floating gold, the sperm whale equivalent of a house cat’s hairball has been so rare and valuable for centuries that finding it is akin to winning the lottery. Current prices start at around $20 a gram, so a 45-kilogram chunk of ambergris can still command quite a price. But more on that later. For now, back to the high seas of the Indian Ocean in the 13th century, where Marco Polo, having been perhaps privy to a sperm whale in the midst of a bulimic episode, became the first to identify sperm whales as the source of ambergris. By then, ambergris was already a hot commodity, so demystifying its origins did little to reduce its desirability. In fact, it put a giant target on the backs of all sperm whales... one of reasons the mighty beasts were hunted for centuries to the brink of extinction.

Ancient Cure-All

Though whales have doubtlessly been producing it for eons, ambergris was first noticed by the Ancient Greeks, who used a dab here and there to fortify their wine, accentuate its medicinal effects and intensify its intoxication capacity.

The Greek physician Dioscorides (40-90 CE) mentioned in his ground-breaking medical tome De Materia Medica that ambergris was useful against digestive and intestinal trouble. Whether you suffered from gas, diarrhea or constipation, ambergris was there, like the Pepto Bismol of the past. The ninth-century Arab-Iraqi philosopher and physician Al-Kindi (801-873 CE) wrote that ambergris’s richness would cure sore throats; Ibn al-Baitar (1188-1248), the Andalusian medical wunderkind, used it extensively as a treatment for mental diseases, paralysis and cardiac issues.

But what exactly was it? The Ancient Greeks thought it came from sea birds pooping along the shore. Arab scholars claimed it spouted from deep within the earth out of springs along the shoreline. The medieval Chinese claimed it was actually floating dragon spit. The Japanese at least realized that it was the stuff of whales, and they were also the first to figure out that it came by way of their backsides rather than by their baleen.

In 1783, the German physician Franz Xavier Schwediawer presented a paper proving what Marco Polo had figured out centuries earlier to be true. In 1820, Joseph-Bienaimé Carentou and Pierre-Joseph Pelletier — two French chemists — subjected ambergris to its first intensive scientific study. They isolated and named its active chemical component ambrein (the synthetic version of which is now used in countless modern perfumes) though they were unable to prove its rumoured medicinal properties.

Smells Like Money

Taking its cue from the Arab and Asian worlds, ambergris had became most highly prized in the West for its distinct aroma — a sweet, smooth and musky scent said to be similar to tobacco, evergreen or even rubbing alcohol, only without that painful, eye-watering kick — and was added to perfume as a base because of its waxy composition and pungent properties. The smell on the skin from handling just a tiny pinch of ambergris was said to last for days, regardless of how many times one washed their hands. Its mystical origins added to the romance of the stuff, and before long it had found its way into the pharmacopeia as well.

In Europe during the 14th century, ambergris was touted as a way to avoid the Black Death. Globs of the stuff were carried in pockets, stuffed into amulets and smeared inside masks in the vain hope that it would defeat the fearsome plague. In reality, its only effectiveness came in hiding the smell of corpses as they were carried through the streets.

On the lighter side, tinctures and salves, balms and tonics — a drop of ambergris added was said to relieve all sorts of less serious problems, and especially those of a romantic nature. In the 18th century, men with erectile dysfunction naturally turned to a poultice of ambergris cream. Rumour has it that Madame du Barry slathered ambergris all over her body in her successful attempt to seduce Louis XV and install herself as his official mistress.

In Middle Eastern medicine, throughout the Arab world and in China too, ambergris was held in serious regard. While Arab medical treatises from the Middle Ages suggest rubbing ambergris into the hair as an aphrodisiac, it was also powdered and drunk in order to correct digestive trouble, brain problems and cardiac conditions. The Arabic word used for this highly prized cure-all was anbar – the derivative of the word amber. In order to distinguish it from the other kind of amber, ambre jaune, or yellow amber, which also washes up along the shore, the French coined the term ambre gris for the whale-based product, since when found most is a marbled grey in colour.

Ambergris Over Easy

More serious ailments were also no problem for the mighty ambergris. In Great Britain, epilepsy and headaches were treated with it throughout the Middle Ages; it seemed to be a favourite treatment of neurological issues of all kinds, like palsies, tremblings and even aphasia. A few centuries later, English and Dutch gentlemen enjoyed a little sprinkling of this expensive delicacy on their eggs for breakfast, as much to impress onlookers as a way to keep the doctor away. Caviar, truffle and ambergris omelet, anyone?

Though it was banned by most Western countries decades ago, ambergris is once again legal, so long as it is found floating in the sea or washed up along the shore, and not sliced out of the bellies of endangered marine mammals. Still, its lingering popularity as a medicine, as an aphrodisiac and as a perfume component in Eastern and Arab markets means the ambergris trade continues to flourish. It has a decidedly dark side, with sketchy dealers reportedly doing a booming cash business out of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In 2006, an Australian couple walking along the beach found a 13.75-kilogram lump of something grey in the sand and decided to lug it back home for a closer look. They were doubtlessly pleased to discover it was ambergris, worth about $300,000. A recent eBay listing for one gram of genuine ambergris — along with the seller’s assurance that it would cure Parkinson’s disease — had bidding start at $100. So, while ambergris’s reputation, as a miracle cure might never make it back to mainstream medicine, the mystique somehow remains... along with the unlikely truth that the value of whale excrement cannot be overstated.

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