Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

© Howard Klaaste /

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Bite me

Cannibalism is hard to swallow, but honeyed humans were the medicines of yesteryear

They say the hair of the dog is the best cure for a hangover, but before you crack an egg into that Bloody Mary and call it breakfast, consider the history of the belief: doctors used to pack hair from rabid dogs into the wounds of bite victims. The notion that “like cures like” has no basis in science (sorry, homeopathy!) and yet some people still cling to the hope that it does. Why? Is it because rhino horn really cures impotence thanks to its resemblance to a certain erect male organ? Or because allium species like onions and garlic prevent the watery eyes and runny nose of hay fever and head colds? Far from it. But this logic was behind many centuries of prevailing medical wisdom. Back then it was understandable. The simplicity and even poetry of sympathetic magic appealed to our need to make sense of disease — and none stretched the law of similars to the limit more than medicinal cannibalism.

Honeyed humans

Art historians can make a good case that the stable Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was one of the cultural and artistic peaks in Chinese history. Medical historians might say it was the height of medicinal cannibalism, too. In the materia medica text Bencao Gangmu (1578), legendary Chinese physician and pharmacist Li Shizhen (1518-1593) outlines among his 1892 entries the process of creating a “mellified man.” Also known as “human mummy confection,” it was a substance made from a corpse that had been marinated in a coffin full of honey. Shizhen promoted it as a cure for various ailments and also reported on a more powerful form, mellifluous martyrs: “ Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint.” Of course, China and Arabia weren’t the only places where medicinal cannibalism existed, though the New World version was decidedly less gentle than sweet corpses steeped in honey. During the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors observed an obsession in Tenochtitlan, Mexico’s enormous Aztec capital of 200,000, that included human sacrifice. Estimates suggest that as many as 250,000 men, women and children (some willing, some not) ascended the steps of pyramids each year to have their beating hearts and guts ripped from their bodies to offer as sacrifice to the gods, but also to be fed to Tenochtitlan’s wealthy elite, presumably as a form of medicine. As revolted as the conquering Spaniards were by the practice, a similar if less active form of medicinal cannibalism was being practiced closer to home, in England and throughout all of Europe.

Brain food

The tumultuous reign of Charles II (1630-1685) saw all manner of drama befall Great Britain, including the Great Plague, Great Fire of London and great Restoration. Less great were the “apoplectic fits” Charles II suffered one morning in 1685 at age 54. Medical historians now believe he died of renal failure, but back then the sudden onset and strangeness of his symptoms had most believing he was poisoned. In the four days before he died, the king’s physicians took extraordinary measures to bring him back from the brink, most notably by breaking the bank using high doses of one of the day’s most sought-after cure-alls: “spirit of skull” or King’s Drops. It was pretty much what it sounds like — powdered human skull mixed with alcohol, herbs and other ingredients. Charles paid £6000 for the secret recipe and took a dose daily. It was believed that human skulls absorbed the power of the brains they held after death, so much so that even the moss that grew on skulls was considered a rare and effective cure. So ubiquitous was skull medicine that apothecaries in England displayed skulls in their windows. Only the wealthy were safe from the threat of skull-moss fraud, however, since they could afford to pay the premium for moss with the cranium still attached. King Charles, of course, could afford the very best of both and was a big believer in their powers; the lab he had set up at the Palace of Whitehall allowed him to keep a ready supply at hand. Towards the end, when he was wracked by convulsions, drooling, eye-rolling and the like, the royal doctors assured their tortured monarch that their hair-of-the-dog remedy was the only thing that could save him. Shockingly, even mega-doses weren’t enough, and Charles II succumbed to his seizures at last. Still, this was not the first time Europeans dabbled in the dead to cure what ailed the living. The Romans had their own cannibalistic cures and the flesh of Gladiators was prized above all else. Their dried and ground up livers, and brave blood, were considered to an especially potent medicine for epilepsy — and a nice way of using what was left behind on the floor of the Colosseum and other arenas across the country.

Marmalade, mummies and more

By the 16th and 17th centuries, body parts appeared within the pharmacopoeia of the day quite frequently. The monks of one Franciscan monastery used the blood of corpses to make a marmalade, as per a 1679 recipe. Pastes, poultices, drams and draughts made of flesh, fat and bone were employed across the board. The preferred flesh, of course, came from the executed, since the vitality which their parts would hopefully confer had not been marred by disease or old age. Creative potions were described in the literature, often to ridiculously specific degrees. One 17th-century German recipe laid out by pharmacologist Johann Schröder (1600-1664) called for soaking in aloe, wine and myrrh the dried flesh of the cadaver of a reddish man ... of around 24 years old... dead of a violent death, but not an illness. Bandages soaked in rendered human fat were a favourite German cure for gout. Sometimes, doctors got a little overzealous sourcing body parts, especially when the patient was of particular importance. One example occurred in 1492, when desperate doctors did their best to cure the dying Pope Innocent VIII. They sent for a trio of young boys, bled them until they died and had the Pope drink their blood after transfusions failed. Not so innocent after all.... But the most sought-after cure in Europe — for well over 200 years — was a mixture made from mummies. It started during the Renaissance, when fascination with ancient civilizations began. Could it be that Pharaohs held the secret to immortal life? It was worth a shot and so doctors began doling out doses of powdered, cloth-wrapped, bitumen-soaked corpses stolen from sacred ground and smuggled into Europe. It was touted as a cure for epilepsy, headaches, bleeding and bruising. The King of France, Francis I (1494-1547), never left home without a dose of mummy medicine. Prior to the 18th century, in fact, the word “mummy” was synonymous with “drug.” But the black market couldn’t keep up with demand. When the mummy well ran dry, suppliers turned to the unclaimed corpses of beggars and lepers, but the consistency was too new. The public appetite for flesh soon turned into a boon for grave-robbers and industrious sorts with shovels set about supplying Europe with the desiccated parts they needed. In France in 1694, the royal pharmacist noted that those looking for a little human fat to cure their arthritis were bypassing pharmacists and going straight to the public executioner, who was selling it for cheaper. As more frauds were exposed, the bloom was off the proverbial skull moss, and mummy medicine became increasingly ridiculed as unscientific and superstitious. By the end of the 18th century, corpse medicine was all but dead... or was it?

Modern-day monsters

This past October, two Chinese students were arrested for buying and reselling 3000 pills online. Touted as cure-alls, revitalizers and weight-loss aids, the pills tested 100-percent positive for human flesh. Since 2011, South Korean officials have been stemming a tide of Chinese capsules being smuggled into the country through the mail and in luggage for resale internally and, presumably, to the rest of the world. The pills, believed to originate from Northeast China, contain the powdered remains of fetuses, placenta and newborn babies. The potential health implications are considerable, the moral ones far worse. Leonardo da Vinci explained the living’s appetite for human flesh as medicine as follows: “We preserve our life with the death of others. In a dead thing insensate life remains which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.” As horrendous as it sounds, the demand for cannibalistic cures remains. Now, as then, it’s all just hair of the dog... with plenty of bark and no bite.

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