Skip to content

5 Fascinating Remedies from History

A doctor prescribes another ninety leeches for a sick, bedbound man

 

As snow begins to fall and temperatures drop, it becomes all too clear that winter has arrived. For some, this is the season of sniffles and sneezes. Many of us will be searching for immune-boosting remedies to fight off those pesky winter colds. And this got us thinkingwhat kind of treatments were used in the past? Today, we wanted to dive into the fascinating history of remedies. From the truly bizarre to the slightly ingenious, medicines of the past will amaze you.


Disclaimer: These remedies aren't medical advice! If you're experiencing any health concerns, please consult a qualified healthcare professional.

 

Willow bark: Over 2,000 years ago, Chinese and Greek civilizations used this tree for a range of medicinal purposes. It had pain-relieving qualities, and its key ingredient, salicylic acid, is still used today. Have you ever heard of Aspirin? It’s a synthetic derivative of salicylic acid. Today, Aspirin is used in a variety of treatments to reduce pain, fever, and inflammation.


Willow Tree over Napoleon's grave
 Willow trees growing on Napoleon's grave at St. Helena. Pencil drawing, 1892. Wellcome Collection. Source: Wellcome Collection.

 

Spider web bandages: Did you know people once used spider webs to dress their wounds? These bandages date back to the first century CE and were still used during Shakespeare’s time. Up until recently, some scientists argued there was a scientific reason for this sticky treatment. They believed spider webs had an antiseptic quality, meaning they could fight off infections from bacteria and fungus. However, don’t go putting spider webs on your cuts! Today, scientists are still debating the healing properties of spider silk.

 

The Royal Touch: This historical treatment has not stood the test of time. In Europe, it was believed that a particular disease could be cured by the touch of a king or queen. The disease, known as "King's Evil" or scrofula, caused a swelling of the lymph nodes. In times before modern medicine, the cause of scrofula remained a mystery. Beginning in the 11th century, European monarchs would lay their hands on sick patients to cure them of their ailments. “The Royal Touch” treatment lasted until the 19th century!

The frontispiece of John Browne's book ‘Adenochoiradelogia’ or ‘An anatomick-chirurgical treatise of glandules & strumaes, or Kings-Evil-swellings’, published 1684.
The frontispiece of John Browne's book ‘Adenochoiradelogia’ or ‘An anatomick-chirurgical treatise of glandules & strumaes, or Kings-Evil-swellings’, published 1684. Source: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

 

Leeches
: These creatures were used as part of a very popular treatment called bloodletting. The blood-sucking worms were placed on patients to, you guessed it, suck their blood. Bloodletting was believed to bring balance back to the patients’ blood, based on the ancient humoral theory. While this is no longer practiced today, scientists have found new uses for leeches. Hospitals in London have used the worms during microsurgeries to drain extra blood and boost natural healing. As it turns out, leeches produce a protein that stops blood clotting, and this can be very helpful after certain surgeries.

 

Turmeric: This plant has a long history of medicinal use in South Asia. The ancient text Susruta's Ayurvedic Compendium described an ointment with turmeric that could be used to treat food poisoning. This text is over 2,000 years old! Today, the healing effects of turmeric are still recognized. Scientists suggest the plant has antioxidant properties that may help inflammation.  


Tumeric (Curcuma longa L.): rhizome with flowering stem and separate leaf and floral segments. Coloured engraving after F. von Scheidl, 1776
Turmeric (Curcuma longa L.): rhizome with flowering stem and separate leaf and floral segments. Coloured engraving after F. von Scheidl, 1776. Wellcome Collection. Source: Wellcome Collection.

 

Looking for other fascinating tales from history? Don't forget to check out our kids magazine and book series! Discover more stories about the history of medicine in our podcast too. Young historians will love these educational adventures into the past. 

 

Further Reading