19th-century ‘Ambition Pills’ were supplements for men that promised to get rid of a variety of problems: impotence, sleeplessness, enlarged veins, and nervous debility. Unsurprisingly, a few decades after the introduction of those pills, a study found that their ingredients were questionable. In 1918, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that each pill contained “a little over one-thirtieth of a grain of strychnin” and that it was “possible for any one to purchase enough strychnin in a single box of Wendell’s Ambition Pills to kill an adult.”
I know you’ve all been waiting for the great comeback of our favorite poison – arsenic.
In 1874, a surprising medical case investigated by doctor Wintreberg was described in “Revue de Thérapeutique Médico-Chirurgicale.” One of Wintreberg’s patients was suffering from recurring and painful anal ulcers, and there was no indication as to what could have caused them. Lotions, enemas, special diet – nothing helped for long. After some time it turned out that a few other members of the family started experiencing the same symptoms, which gave Wintreberg a clue as to what was going on. After a brief “investigation” it turned out the culprit was … green poster paper the family used in their latrines. Tests confirmed that the poster paper contained copper arsenite! Fortunately, it was enough for the family to throw the paper away to ease their symptoms.
You can find his and other bizarre stories about arsenic in “Kolor śmierci, odcień grobu czyli 50 odcieni morderczej zieleni” by a friend of mine, Wiktoria Król. Unfortunately, the book is only available in Polish right now, but who knows what the future holds!
Have you ever unknowingly made candles out of a dead body? This might seem impossible, but it’s exactly what physician Augustus Bozzi Granville did. In 1821, in the midst of Victorian Egyptomania, he had a chance to unwrap, dissect, and thoroughly examine an ancient mummy. During the process, he discovered a wax-like substance surrounding the mummy, which he thought to be a mix of beeswax and bitumen used by Egyptian embalmers. In reality, he came across adipocere (commonly known as corpse wax), a product of saponification of fatty tissues.
In his autobiography, Granville sums up his discovery:
“I claim in this laborious investigation to have demonstrated the fact of wax having been the ingredient which was successfully employed, not only to preserve the body from putrefaction, but also to keep the membranes as well as ligaments in their supple condition, so that when the wax was discharged from them by the process of boiling in water, the soft parts came out with their natural structure, and in less than twenty-four hours underwent decomposition and putrefaction.”
He was so sure of his discovery, that he used the very same ancient “wax” to prepare a set of small candles to beautifully illuminate his lecture on the mummy at the Royal Institution.
To further support his claims regarding the mummification method, Granville experimented with preserving body parts of stillborn children with the use of wax “according to the Egyptian method”. All of his specimens can still be seen at the British Museum.
The majority of Victorians had little knowledge on how diseases spread and what to do to treat them. Even the most educated ones were divided between the miasmatic theory and the germ theory of disease for decades; and physicians’ advice could be wildly contradictory.
Add to that hundreds of ‘cure-all’ drugs, which often were more harmful than the diseases themselves, and we get a picture of utter chaos and misinformation. No wonder many Victorians decided to trust more traditional remedies to which they were used, even if it meant using bizarre ingredients. One of the favorite traditional remedies were liquids and ointments with… earthworms. These products were used for bruises and were based on a recipe that had been around from medieval times! The worms were first boiled in oil and then broken up in a mortar and mixed with wine and other ingredients. Then the mixture was boiled and used in a liquid form on the bruises.
Max Joseph von Pettenkofer was a Bavarian chemist known for his research on practical hygiene and implementing many hygiene-related standards in German cities, including improving the state of drinking water, sewage disposal, and general cleanliness. While all of this work positively contributed to public health, it was also a result of Pettenkofer’s alignment with the miasmatic theory rather than the germ theory of disease. And even though Pettenkofer did not deny the existence of bacteria, he thought they weren’t enough to cause sickness and had to be accompanied by bad living conditions, miasmatic air, and dirt in general. This belief made him at odds with Robert Koch, the discoverer of the bacterium responsible for cholera outbreaks and proponent of the germ theory of disease. The two scientists did not see eye to eye with each other on how to deal with German cholera outbreaks in the 1880s, which only made things worse.
Pettenkofer was so adamant that Koch was wrong that he decided to perform a perplexing experiment on himself in 1892 (when he was 74!). To prove that cholera could not develop without poor hygiene and subsoil rather than drinking water, he decided to drink a cholera bouillon laced with bacteria isolated from the stool of a person who had already died of that disease. To make sure his experiment was viable, he decided to do it in front of an audience and obtained the sample from Koch himself. He had also emptied his stomach beforehand and neutralized any leftover acid with sodium bicarbonate.
How this fantastic example of self-experimentation ended? After experiencing watery diarrhea for a week, Pettenkofer stated that he did NOT come down with cholera, and his symptoms were associated with something else. In reality, he contracted a mild case of cholera and was probably saved from death by the fact he already had had contact with the disease a few years earlier. When asked why he was willing to risk his own life, he stated “I would have looked Death quietly in the eye for mine would have been no foolish or cowardly suicide; I would have died in the service of science like a soldier on the field of honor.”
You can read more about this and other self-experiments in Who Goes First?
Have you ever heard of Turnspit dogs? If not, don’t worry, it might be because this breed used to be so common that people actually didn’t give it any second thought. Now extinct, these small creatures were described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.” They were bred in order to run on a wheel (called a ‘turnspit) which in turn spun a cooking spit.
While it is said the dogs enjoyed running, their job was very taxing and dangerous due to the closeness of the fire. Because of that, at least two dogs would work in a kitchen, taking shifts on the wheel as needed. Some dogs could find “employment” elsewhere, for example in a progressive pharmacy, where the turnspit could be used as a giant, canine-powered pestle and mortar.
Several lucky Turnspit dogs spent their last years as Queen Victoria’s pets.
As we already know, Victorians loved adding alcohol to their meds, even the ones advertised for kids. As it turns out, various spirits could also be added to a baby’s bath.
In Henry Allbutt’s “Every Mother’s Handbook” (1897), the author stands against this practice: “Again, some nurses add brandy or other spirits to the water in which a baby is first washed. Or if they don’t do this, they wash the baby’s head with the brandy, for the purpose they say, of strengthening it. Now, this is decidedly improper and must never be done, because the spirit evaporates very rapidly, and quickly produces a sensation of cold, which is both unpleasant and injurious to a newly-born child, by depriving it of some of its natural heat.”
A baffling cough medicine recipe from Constance Moore’s “Hints on Health from the Victorians.” It goes without saying that you should NOT try it!
As we already know, the Victorians were obsessed with ghastly pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. This also included stigmatization of freckles as they were associated with the working class and outdoor labor in general. In part, freckles were also seen as a health problem resulting from the overproduction of yellow bile by the liver. One of the ways to treat this ‘problem’ was to bring balance to the four humors, either by purging or bloodletting.
Those unwilling to lose their blood over freckles could purchase products which were supposed to “gently” get rid of freckles. However, even pharmacists at the time spoke against these products, as they often contained highly invasive and poisonous ingredients like arsenic or lead. And while the first results could have been promising (rashing and peeling skin would reveal some lighter skin beneath), long-term effect included permanent skin damage and heavy metal poisoning.
You may ask, “if they reeeally wanted to hide freckles, wouldn’t it be easier and safer to just put on some makeup?” Unfortunately color cosmetics fell out of favor at the time, when Queen Victoria deemed it vulgar and unfit for respectable ladies.
Check out this Sawbones episode for more weird historical “cures” for freckles!
How’s your hysteria today? I have good news for you, it turns out all you need to do is relax. Drink a lot of milk, stay in your room, don’t do anything, just rest. Throw out that painting brush, don’t listen to any music, don’t have any conversations with anyone, you need to RELAX. What are you doing with that book? Put it down, no intellectual activities for you, just RELAX. For how long? Half a year should do the trick. The rest cure, proposed by Silas Weir Mitchell around the 1850s, was a popular treatment for hysteria and other mental disorders diagnosed in the Victorian era. The “treatment” revolved around avoiding any physical and intellectual activity to extreme levels, where even having a normal conversation or reading a book was seen as too strenuous for “hysterical” women.
Among Mitchell’s patients, were several famous women, like Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The latter, who suffered what we would call today postpartum depression, was prescribed to “Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.” Gilman famously used her awful treatment experience as an inspiration for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
As you can imagine, the bed rest cure not only didn’t help, but even contributed to the worsening of female patients’ condition. Many women ended up being forcefully administered into asylums afterwards. At the same time, Mitchell advised his male patients lots of outdoor exercise.