The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret has a very extensive collection which includes the herbs that were used to make medicines at Old St Thomas’ Hospital. Since the first use of the garret was as a herb garret, Karen Howell, the museum’s curator, has created a historical compendium of how the herbs were used in the past. In this A-Z you will find many attitudes and recipes that are historical. Please, do not try these at home. The following document is meant only as a historical resource.
Angelica – Archangelica officinalis.
The Herb of Angels. Mrs M Grieves in A Modern Herbal, 1931 wrote of the use of Angelica as “a protection against contagion, for purifying the blood… as a sovereign remedy for poisons, agues and all infectious maladies… According to one legend, Angelica was revealed in a dream by an angel to cure the plague… A preservative against evil spirits and witchcraft.” The root, stalks and fruit were used as a tonic and stimulant. As an expectorant, the fresh leaves were mashed and applied as poultices for the treatment of lung and chest ailments and a brew of the roots used to treat typhoid. Within ‘The Modern Practice of the London Hospitals. Viz. St. Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s, St George’s and Guy’s’… of 1764 (p641) listed prescriptions for ‘Alexeterian Waters’ and powders that contained Angelica, to be used as a diaphoretic (to induce sweating and perspiration to expel the disease). The use of Alexeterals was further described in The Edinburgh New Dispensary, 1786 “In hospitals, and places ill-aired, common inflammatory fevers sometimes changed into putrid and malignant ones. To guard against any accident of this kind, as soon as the inflammation begins to abate, or the pulse to soften, three or four spoonfuls of this alexipharmic mixture can be give every six hours.“ ( p641). Mrs G also wrote that the botanist Barber-Surgeon John Gerard (1545-1662) had written of angelica that “it cureth the bitings of mad dogs and all other venomous beasts”.
Barley – Hordeum vulgare
Barley is a highly nutritious member of the grass family that contains 80% starch, 6% proteins and eleven times more calcium than milk
Mrs Grieve: (p84-85) “Pearl Barley is used for the preparation of a decoction which is a nutritive and demulcent drink in febrile conditions and in catarrhal affections of the respiratory and urinary organs”.
At the old United Guy’s and St Thomas Hospitals large quantities of barley water were prescribed to be taken before lithotomy, so that when the surgeon cut into the bladder, small pieces of stone were flushed from the body. The United Hospitals’ ‘Water Gruel’ was made with barley and Guy’s guided “For each Diet, gruel or Barley-water as required.” (1857 Medical Dictionary, Robley Dunglison p297). Dr James Blundell of Guys prescribed for the healing of any post-natal tearing of the bladder ”To relieve this, the patient must drink freely of toast and water, linseed tea, gum water, or barley water – one or two pints in twenty-four hours …” (Lectures on Midwifery and the Disease of Women and Children, p328-329).
Barley was advertised in the Medica l Times 1858 as “The Best Food for Children, Invalids, and others – Robinson’s Patent Barley for making Superior Barley-Water in Fifteen Minutes …“ Another London based company Adnam’s listed their “Improved Patent Groats and Barley” as available in “Canisters for Families at 2s., 5., and 10s.”. The high levels of malt and nutritional sugars produced from barley are still included in drinks such as Ovaltine and Horlicks.
Chamomile, Common – Anthemis nobilis
The ‘Plant’s Physician’ – it is reputed that any plants growing near chamomile thrive. Mrs Grieve reported chamomile was used “against hysterical and nervous affections in women, soothing, sedative… It will [also] cut short an attack of delirium tremens in the early stage….It is considered a preventive and the sole certain remedy for nightmare.“(p86-87).
One Thomas’ Hospital prescription of 1764 reads: “Compound Bolus [large fresh pill] Take of chamomile flowers, half a drachm, alum, and myrrh, of each five grains, simple syrup, a sufficient quantity” and listed as “sometimes given in intermittant fevers.” (‘The Modern Practice of the London Hospitals. Viz. St. Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s, St George’s and Guy’s’… of 1764 p41-2). Chamomile was tonic, anodyne and antispasmodic and was used against ague, jaundice and to treat dropsy [heart condition now better known as oedema]. St Thomas’ Hospital Medical Student Hampton Weekes wrote to his Father Dr Richard in 1801 that he had seen two children operated for bladder stone removal, that he had seen chamomile used as a surgical dressing: “Mr [John] Birch operated ….. and they put chamomile flowers in a bag & put it on the Abdomen confining it on with bandages at intervals wetting the bag with Spt. Vin […] warmg. It is the only difference in their [St Thomas’ surgical] procedure hitherto from us….” (Nov 15th 1801, p76). Mrs G also said of this healing plant “The antiseptic powers of Chamomile are stated to be 120 times stronger than sea-water…”
Dandelion Taraxicum – Taraxacum officinale
The Lion Herb. Dandelion root was roasted to make a caffeine free coffee that was valued as a soothing liver tonic that also kept the kidneys and bowels healthy. Mrs Grieve in A Modern Herbal wrote: “A strong decoction is found serviceable in stone and gravel….it is said that its use for liver complaints was assigned to the plant largely on the doctrine of signatures, because of its bright yellow flowers of a bilious hue” (p249-255).
Mary Vanhagen, aged 43, was admitted as a patient to Mary’ Ward of St Thomas’ Hospital, on July 9th 1835 suffering suspected heart disease, then known as dropsy. The operation of Parancetesis was undertaken, where her abdomen was catheterised or ‘Tapped’ to remove 25 pints of fluid. She was then prescribed duiretics to ease her condition. In the first week of treatment August Dr Roots noted that “she was then directed to take in conjunction with this dose of eletarium [Squirting cucumber], a pint of the decoction of taraxacum daily”. (JFS 1836 vol 1 p175-194 p184) Mrs G gave further directions for the simple enjoyment of the herb: ”Young Dandelion leaves make delicious sandwiches, the tender leaves being laid between slices of bread and butter.
Elder – Sambucus nigra
The elder tree was traditionally known as “Nature’s Medicine Chest”. It was source for the legendary universal cure all a.k.a. ‘Green Oil’ or ‘Oil of Swallows’ and Mrs Grieve in A Modern Herbal gives that prescription as “one part of bruised fresh Elder leaves in 3 parts of linseed oil.” All parts of fresh or dried Elder were made into a syrups, tinctures, oils, spirits, waters, liniments, extracts, salts, conserves, vinegars and decoctions. The flowers and fruit were known to be loaded with vitamins and were made into a blood purifying tonic that were a highly valued protection against, scarlet fever, measles, lung ailments, asthma, dropsy, colds and flu.
St Thomas’ Hospital surgeon John Flint South in his book Household Surgery, 1847 advised that “Elder Ointment – Is the mildest, blandest, and most cooling ointment, as the old women call it, which can be used, and is very suitable for anointing the face or neck when sun-burnt. It is made of fresh elder-flowers stripped from the stalks, two pounds of which are simmered in an equal quantity of hog’s-lard till they become crisp, after which the ointment whilst fluid is strained through a coarse sieve.“
Mrs G directed that the cold tea was “used for inflamed eyes and that elder wine had “a curative power of established repute as a remedy, taken hot, at night…”. Elder flower water is still used to settle the irritation of chicken pox and measles.
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare
The Fasting Herb. Travelling pilgrims picked fennel seed as they saw it, storing it to eat it and keep hunger at bay. Later fennel seed was sugar coated to make comfits, or dragees, to be eaten to calm the stomach and help digestion. Mrs Grive in A modern Herbal quotes “Fennel tea, formerly also employed as a carminative, is made by pouring half a pint of boiling water on a teaspoonful of bruised Fennel seeds…” She also included a Nicholas Culpeper quote on Fennel: “The seed and the roots much more help to open obstructions of the liver, spleen, and gall … and the yellow jaundice, as also the gout and cramp. The seed is of good use in medicines for shortness of breath and wheezing, by stoppings of the lungs”. Fennel was included within St Thomas’ Snail water prescription, written by Dr Richard Mead (Pharmacopoeia Pauperum, Banyer, H, 1718, p9). Dr Mead also later listed an ‘efficacious’ prescription for the bringing on the rash of smallpox to speed the passing of the disease: “Boil fennel-seeds and smallage-seeds, of each ten drachms, in an earthen vessel, till the water is red ; strain it, and give three ounces at a time.”
The Methodist preacher John Wesley, included Fennel in his health directory Primitive Physic, 1744, for “Rheum in the Eye ….[prescription no] 284….a little Ear-wax, on the Speck. This has cured many. 285. Or, a Drop of the Juice of Fennel.” (p.63-4).
Guaiacum – Guaiacum officinalis –
Guaiacum was known as lignum-vitae or ‘The Wood of Life’. It is a tree native tree of South America and was extracted by heating the wood to release the inner sap that would set into ovoid ‘tears’ that were then ground into a powder. Guaiacum was used as a diuretic, laxative and a treatment of chronic gout, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic rheumatism “… relieving the pain and inflammation between the attacks“ and Mrg G in A Modern Herbal wrote that it “it obtained a great reputation about the sixteenth century, when it was brought into notice as a cure for syphilis and other diseases … when the decoction is taken hot and the body is kept warm, it acts as a diaphoretic … largely used for secondary syphilis, skin diseases and scrofula”. Guaiacum was used at the old St Thomas’ Hospitals Pharmacopoeia of 1776 for Laxative Pills (p30) , Diet Decoction (p11), and the Decoction of Peruvian bark (p10) which was frequently used against fever. It was included within the ‘Aromatic Pills’ that were administered at most of the old London hospitals. Dr R H Goolden, Assistant Physician to St Thomas Hospital stated that “…for it is a practical fact, not half so generally known as it deserves to be, that the common cold in the head, however severe, may be at once relieved by guaiacum.” (The Lancet, 1851, p577).
The dense wood of the tree was also traditionally used to make pestles and policemen’s truncheons.
Horseradish – Cochlearia Armoracia / rusticana,
The Coarse Radish with antiseptic properties. The plant was a holistic folk cure treatment for rheumatism, where the patient was advised to drink a brew of horseradish root and apply vinegar dipped leaves as a poultice on the ailing joints. Ms G “Horseradish juice mixed with white vinegar will also, applied externally, help to remove freckles. The same mixture, well diluted with water and sweetened with glycerine, gives marked relief to children in whooping-cough”. She then then quoted Nicholas Culpeper who advised to grate it and use it like a mustard plaster as a cure for chilblains, sciatica and gout. It known today that when cut or grated, horseradish root produces a powerful mustard oil and can stimulate the skin used as a rubefacient, or a counter irritant. Horseradish is of the same genus as Scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis) and being high in Vitamin C, both were used as an antiscorbutic [anti-scurvy] and for the treatment of ‘Scald Head’, a disease suffered by malnourished people where their scalp scabbed and their hair fell out. At the old Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, the 1741 ‘The Scorbutic Decoction’ prescription included chamomile, wormwood cardus, centaury and gentian with two ounces of Horseradish with directions to “Dose 4 ounces twice a Day“. It was used with mustard seed against dropsy and to strengthen the heart and also as a Vermifuge to kill the parasitic worms that so commonly infected children.
Ipecacuanha – Psychotria / cephaelis Ipecacuanha
The Portuguese name for ‘Road-side Sick-making Plant.’ The root of the Brazilian Ipecacuanha plant had an emetic action that was especially used to make a patient vomit to expel the poison, in order to rid the body of disease. Mrs Grieve in 1931 stated “The Pharmacopoeias contain a very large number of preparations of Ipecacuanha” that it was known “for more than a century to benefit amoebic (or tropical) dysentery and is regarded as the specific treatment…”. Ipecacuanha was used as an expectorant, given within cough mixtures for the treatment of bronchitis and laryngitis. It was so often prescribed that it was known under the shorter name “Ipecac”. It was included in a very famous prescription Pulvis Ipecacuanha compositus, which was better known as ‘Dover’s Powder’, a compound that was made with one part of Ipecacuanha powder and 1 part opium mixed into an eight part excipient base. One powder was mixed into a glass of wine or water.
On October 8th, 1835, bricklayer Septimus Carter, aged 19, was admitted as a patient to Abraham’s Ward of old St Thomas’ Hospital, suffering ‘Inflammation of the Fibrous Capsule of the Hip Joint’. Carter suffered great pain within the hip joint and knee and was prescribed by Mr Frederick Tyrrell (1793-1843) laxatives, a camphor mixture and ‘Vini Ipecac’ – Ipecacuanha wine. After many sleepless nights, on 20th November, Carter had recovered, was well and “went out at his own desire” (St Thomas Hospital Reports, P277-340).
Juniper – Juniperus communis
Juniper in many languages simply meant ‘gin’ which in the Middle Ages was a bitter medicinal brew that could be used as a skin treatment in an ointment that could also be used for sheep. Mrs Grieve gave detail that “Spirit of Juniper has properties resembling Oil of Turpentine… The wood of Juniper communis, is obtained the tarry, empyreumatic oil known as Cade Oil, or Juniper Tar Oil, used in the treatment of the skin diseases”. Cade oil was used at the old St Thomas’ Hospital to treat patients with scrofula, a disease that was also known as the ‘King’s Evil’ that was mythically cured by the touch of a royal person. Scrofula was in fact a form of tuberculosis where Mycobacterium bacteria entered the patient’s lungs and infected the lymph nodes in the neck. Juniper was also given within medications for dropsy, kidney, liver and bladder disorders and was included within Dr Richard Mead’s Snail Water, one of St Thomas’ Hospital prescriptions for syphilis. Including wine, snails, worms and herbs, the recipe was published in the Pharmacopoeia Pauperum of 1718 with the professional review that it was “admirably well contrived, both for Cheapness and Efficiency” (Banyer, H, 1718, p9).
The J Sellers & Company of 115 Bunhill Row, London – ran an advert in The Lancet medical journal on the June 1st 1867, for ‘Juniper Tar Oil Soap’ as purchasable “In Packets Containing 6 Tablets, Price 2s. [2 shillings] Hospitals and Institutions supplied at reduced prices”.
Kino – Kinos
Blood Staunching Kino. Kino powder was used against haemorrhage and to increase the power of cinchona, or quinine, as a treatment for fever. It was the congealed juice of the Bastard Teak (Pterocarpus marsupium) that was obtained from incisions being made into the trunk so that the sap coagulated as a brittle glistening reddish-black resin. Although odourless it had a very astringent taste and when it was chewed could stick to the teeth and make the saliva bright red. Jamaican, African and Australian Kino was produced from the Coccoloba uvifera tree and for some years Eucalyptus – kino as a chloroform was employed as one of the remedies in the tropics for hookworm. The general term Kino was a powder that was prescribed for the treatment of diarrhoea, dysentery and intestinal disorders and as a general astringent that was used as a gargle and against pyrosis [heartburn].
On the June 19th 1835, James Hamilton, sailor, aged 39 was admitted to Jacob’s Ward of old St Thomas’ Hospital. He was suffering chronic dysentery, vomiting, with pain in the stomach “…and very great torture in passing his motions.” On July 14th Dr Roots prescribed Hamilton “Pulv. Kino Comp. [Compound powdered kino] Ten grains every 6 hours”. A month later, from Aug 14th, Hamilton was prescribed the compound to be taken every 3hrs and also to be leeched. Dr Roots completed the patient’s notes: ”November 26th – He went out well and looking fat and healthy” (St Thomas’ Hospital Reports, 1836, p266-7).
Linseed – Linum usitatissimum
‘Useful Linen’. For thousands of years Linseed a.k.a. . Flax provided source to make linen, cord and thread, sails, lamp and candle wicks clothes and sheets. The fibrous stalks were first dampened and retted, to provide woven thread and also a rougher mass known as tow which was used as a soft surgical dressing. St Thomas’ Hospital surgeon John Flint South wrote in his Memorials, 1882: “Pledgets, as they were called, consisting of sheets of tow overspread with wax and oil”.
Mrs Grieve recommended: “As a domestic remedy for colds, coughs and irritation of the urinary organs, linseed tea is most valuable. A little honey and lemon juice makes it very agreeable and more efficacious… made from 1 oz. [ounce] of the ground or entire seeds to 1 pint of boiling water. It is taken in wineglassful doses, which may be repeated ad libitum.”
Prepared, ground linseed meal when mixed with warm water had a strong healing and drawing power and was an integral part of St Thomas’ Hospital surgical procedure. Surgeon Benjamin Travers wrote: “Mr. [Henry] Cline had a patient at St Thomas’ Hospital many years ago, in whom the sloughing process went on spontaneously under a linseed-meal poultice, to such an extent that the wound afterwards healed soundly.” John Flint South while remembering his days as a St Thomas’ medical student reported that “No physic was given to surgical out-patients – lotions, blisters, plaisters, linseed-meal and leeches however were as freely given as required.” (p25-26).
Myrrh – Commiphora myrrha
Antiseptic Tears of Myrrh. For thousands of years, all over the world, Myrrh was used within incense, perfumes, medicines and within ancient Egyptian embalming and fumigation practice. It was harvested by scoring the wood of the thorny Commiphora tree which released the sap, which exuded as waxy resin tears that could be ground to be included in astringent, healing and analgesic medicines. As biblical references lead, Myrrh had a natural sister resin with Frankincense which, having a milder action, provided a powerful antiseptic that was safer for use on infant patients.
Myrrh had expectorant properties and was used as a treatment for phthisis pulmonalis [tuberculosis] and against leprosy, rheumatism and syphilis. Mrs Grieve wrote to use: “Rufus’s pills of aloes and Myrrh, as stimulant cathartic in debility and constipation, or in suppression of the menses…”. At the United Guy’s and ST Thomas’ Hospitals Myrrh was used within liniments, as a soothing mouthwash and against nervous disorders, with prescription for: “Myrrh Bolus …Take conserve of orange peels, and myrrh in powder, of each a scruple, salt of wormwood five grains, and make them into a bolus with the simple syrup. This should be taken three times a day, and is good in histerical affections, and is of manifest service in ripening the small pox, especially that sort, where the pustules rise with a pellucid humour.” (‘The Modern Practice of the London Hospitals. Viz. St. Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s, St George’s and Guy’s’… of 1764, p106).
Nux Vomica – Strychnos Nux-vomica
The Vomiting Nut. The active principle of Nux vomica was extracted from the seeds of the Strychnos Nux-vomica tree a.k.a. . the strychnine providing ‘Poison Nut Tree’. In the nineteenth century physicians predominately prescribed Nux vomica (as the ‘vomica’ section led) as a purge, to make the patient vomit to expel poison. It was used for cases of lead poisoning and as antidote to both chloroform poisoning and snake bite. Nux vomica was also used to treat pruritis, a serious nervous disorder that showed as an itching of the skin, as an evidence of anaemia, diabetes, or liver or kidney disorders. Most of the London Hospitals prescribed Pilulae Nucis Vomicae – Nux Vomica Pills for the treatment of consumption [pulmonary tuberculosis]. The main chemical properties of Nux Vomica were of the highly toxic alkaloid strychnine which affected the brain and could cause dangerous muscle contraction. In the past its toxicity was used to be a stimulant to raise blood pressure for use against post-surgical shock.
In 1856 Dr Peacock of St Thomas’ Hospital reported in the Medical Times and Gazette that he had great success with treating a seriously constipated male patient who had “torpid nervous system generally had derived great benefit by its deployment… since the use of nux vomica (twice daily, gg, ss) … that simple injections [enema] are quite sufficient and employ all the action that is necessary”.
Orange – Citrus aurantium
Fragrant Bitter Orange. The Bitter Orange varies from the sweet one as it has a more delicate perfume and a more distinctive heart shaped leaf. Of the rarity of an orange in 1666 London, Samuel Pepys, a Governor of St Thomas’ Hospital wrote in his diary on Monday 25th June that he had that day visited Lord Robert Neville Brooke’s home: “the gardens are excellent; and here I first saw oranges grow: some green, some half, some a quarter, and some full ripe, on the same tree… I pulled off a little one by stealth (the man being mighty curious of them) and eat it, and it was just as other little green small oranges are; as big as half the end of my little finger.“
Orange is an antiscorbutic, used for the treatment of scurvy with Orange flower water administered internally as a mild nervous stimulant. St Thomas’ Hospital physician Richard Mead (1663-1754) prescribed a skin treatment against “the itch” to “destroy these corroding worms … A liniment might be made of orange-flowers, or red-roses, the mercurial, red corrosive, and hog’s lard pounded together: which is of very fine smell and of equal efficacy”. (P115 The Medical Works of Richard Mead. 1764 ed). Within the St Thomas’ Hospital pharmacopoeia of 1772, Water of Orange Peel spirit was included within the Simple Cinnamon Water used against nausea (p4) and the Simple Bitter Infusion contained Gentian and Santonica roots, Spanish orange peel and Spirituous orange water (p20).
Peppermint – Mentha piperita
Pain Relieving Peppermint. The menthol within Peppermint acted as a local anaesthetic which was of great use to to a pharmacist to disguise the taste of a medicine and ease its effect on the stomach. Oil of Peppermint was used to treat puerperal fever, cholera and diarrhoea and nausea. Bruised fresh Peppermint leaves were applied to relieve headache, rheumatic pain and hysteria.
Mrs Grieve directed: “In slight colds or early indications of disease, a free use of Peppermint tea will, in most cases, effect a cure, an infusion of 1 ounce of the dried herb to a pint of boiling water being employed, taken in wineglassful doses; sugar and milk may be added if desired.”
Dr Richard Mead of St Thomas’ Hospital prescribed a diuretic mixture to be given for Ascites, where, due to heart disease a.k.a. . dropsy, the patient’s abdomen retained fluid. The prescription contained Lemon juice, Wormwood, Simple cinnamon water, Syrup of orange peel and Spiritous water of Peppermint and vinegar of squills. Another of Dr Mead’s patients was suffering ascites but refused to be tapped to remove the abdominal fluid. He was prescribed a similar mixture, but this time with the addition of Thebaic tincture, ley of tartar, marshmallow syrup and cinnamon spirit. The patient additionally took iron infusion, with Peruvian Bark and storax pills “whereby he perfectly recovered” (The Works of Dr Richard Mead, Vol 3, p75-77). Rats were reputed to dislike Peppermints, making it a favourite herb of the London Rat catchers.
Quinine – produced by Cinchona officinalis
The Fever Bark. Cinchona was sourced from South American Ecuador and Peru where the Quechua people had always used the tree bark to treat fever. It arrived in Europe in the 1640s and from that time was known as ‘The Bark’, Red Bark, Jesuits’ Powder or Peruvian Bark and was revered as a powerful treatment for neuralgia and fever. Quinine was first isolated from cinchona in 1820.
On Sunday August 9th 1835, Henry Gray aged 39 “A man above the ordinary stature, and of rather robust habit” was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital, Luke’s Ward. Dr Roots reported: “He had been for twenty years previously the subject of epileptic attacks” and that on “Thursday (August 6th) he took a bottle of wine … on Saturday he fell down in a fit… It should have been stated that he was brought into the Hospital in a straight jacket, and has remained in one ever since”. Gray was prescribed morphine and sublimated mercury and a lead based skin lotion was rubbed on his ailing feet. On the 18th to the 25th August, Gray’s prescription was changed to include Quinine sulphate. Gray “lost all his tremor…was quite rational, and went out of the Hospital quite well on Oct 1st “. (St Thomas Hospital Reports, 1836, p78).
Cinchona bark is valued within modern medical research including the World Health Organisation (WHO) as it has been proven to be a valued and effective treatment of malaria.
Rose – Rosa Gallica
The Apothecary’s Rose. One of the first medical papers including Rose was written by the Iranian medic Abu Ali Sina a.k.a. Avicenna (980-1037) who used egg yolk with rose oil as a skin treatment. The French surgeon Ambroise Pare (1509-1590) mixed Rose oil with turpentine and egg yolk to make a healing ’digestive’ dressing that replaced the cauterisation method to close gunshot wounds. Roses contain a quercitannic acid that is also found in the tannin of oak bark which was an antibacterial treatmnt for bronchial infections, gastritis, diarrhoea, dysentery, eye infections, depression and anxiety. It required 10,000 pounds of roses to produce just one pound of oil but Mrs Grieve in A Modern Herbal instructed that a simple Rose “Confection is to be made by beating 1 lb. of fresh Red Rose petals in a stone mortar with 3 lb. of sugar. It is mostly used in pill making”.
The St Thomas’ Hospital Pharmacopoeia of 1772 incorporated Rose into many prescriptions: ‘The Balsamic Bolus’ included conserve of Rose, the ‘Eyewash with Vitriol’ included Rose water and the ‘Common Gargle’ was simply made by mixing eight ounces of Rose tincture with one ounce of Rose honey (p5, p10, p16).
The infused dried leaves of the Dog Rose were traditionally used as a substitute for tea and within the UK, during World War 2 when fruit was scarce, a vitamin C loaded Rose Hip Syrup was developed that became an important and nutritious children’s health supplement.
Sarsaparilla – Aralia nudicaulis, Smilax sarsaparilla, S. medica
Sarsaparilla Squash. Originally a native plant of Mexico, ‘Jamaica Sarsaparilla’ was used to treat chronic diseases such as scrofula [tuberculosis], dropsy, rheumatism leprosy and syphilis.
In 1830, St Thomas ‘ Hospital surgeon Mr Benjamin Travers (1783-1858) published a paper within the Medico-chirurgical Review, ‘On Venereal Affections’ where he indicated the his high evaluation of the use of Sarsaparilla: “No remedy, next to the adjustment of a diet as generous as the patient can take, is equal to the extract of sarsaparilla … The infusion of the root in lime-water is a form admirably adapted to a weakened stomach, and with this fresh milk may be advantageously combined in equal proportions… [or] to the amount of half an ounce per diem [daily] or more, is the restorative upon which I rely in these cases. Its power is most extraordinary, more so than that of any other drug with which I am acquainted” (M.R. Vol 17, p167).
Mrs Grieves directed that: “it is used as an infusion, but not as a decoction as boiling dissipates its active volatile principle. Two oz. of the root are infused in 1 pint of boiling water and left standing for 1 hour then strained off and drunk in 24 hours.“ Sarsaparilla later became popular within a non-alcoholic ‘blackcurrant style’, Temperance League approved drink that was sold either hot or cold from market street stalls, A tonic Sarsaparilla syrup has been sold by Baldwin & Company, London since 1844.
Tamarind – Tamarindus officnialis, T. indica
The African and West Indian Tamarind tree produces a seed pod with dark juicy acidic flesh that was used within Creole medicine to make a liniment for rheumatism and a decoction to treat dysentery and jaundice. Throughout Southeast Asia Tamarind fruit was applied as a poultice on the forehead for fever. Mrs Grieve recommended “Tamarind pulp making a useful drink in febrile conditions, and the pulp a good diet in convalescence to maintain a slightly laxative action of the bowels”. It was antiseptic, used against fever and as a vermicide for childrens’ worms.
Within his Medical Works, Dr Richard Mead reported that he had received a letter from “the learned Dr Boerhaave (1668-1738)” regarding the treatment of a patient with hydrophobia [rabies]. The patient had been cooled and bathed with salt water and by “keeping the body open by tamarinds, syrup of violets, and frequent clysters of water and nitre; and lastly, eating almost constantly lemons with a little sugar; the poor wretch was most perfectly recovered.“ (1665 ed. P100).
In 1800 William Cullen wrote in The Edinburgh Practice of Physic and Surgery that for Yellow Fever “Balm tea, toast and water, lemonade, tamarind water, weak camomile tea, or barley water, could be drank during this state of the disorder” (p160) and Dr Charles Hilton Fagge (1838–1883) listed the same convalescent drinks had been given to patients of Guy’s Hospital in 1862 for typhus (A Text Book of Medicine, 1901, Vol 1, p248).
Uvae ursi – Achostaphylos – Bearberry a.k.a. (of old) – ‘Arbutus’
‘The Bear’s Grape’. The leaves of the Bearberry shrub made an astringent infusion that was used against bladder and kidney complaints. Mrs Grieves “Bearberry leaves are, therefore, used in inflammatory diseases of the urinary tract, urethritis, cystisis, etc… the combination of 1/2 oz. each of Uva-Ursi, Poplar Bark and Marshmallow root, infused in 1 pint of water for 20 minutes is used with advantage.”
In 1835 William Skipp, aged 38, a labourer from Brentford, became a patient of St Thomas’s Hospital suffering a serious urethral stricture. He was “opened at the perinaeum” and after four months had left recovered. Skipp’s condition later deteriorated and on February 8th 1843, he was admitted to Guy’s Hospital. Mr Key prescribed him baths, calomel, opium and senna and on the 14th February “The sound was introduced… without much pain. Ordered, Hirudin. x. perinaeo [10 leeches to the perineum]. Liq. Potass. m x. [Liquid potassium 10 minims] ex Dec. Uvae Ursi, t. d [Decoction of Uvae ursi Triduum – 3 days] ”. After suffering pain and fever finally on “April 7 Passes his water pretty freely, and was presented. (Guys Hospital Reports, Vol 2, 1844, p198).
Dr William Saunders of Guy’s Hospital (1743-1817) used Uvae ursi as an astringent tonic “employed in haemorrhages, colliquative [liquifactive] evacuations, epilepsy, hysteric antispasmodic disorders.” He listed it under under ‘Lithontriptics’: “they dissolve the calculus in the urinary passages” (Institutes and Therapeutics of Materia Medica, 1774, p 37 and p7).
Violet – Viola odorata
The Anodyne Violet. Preparations of Violet were traditionally used against ague, epilepsy, sleeplessness, pleurisy, jaundice and quinsy. Violet jam a.k.a. ‘Violet Plate’ was used against consumption. Mrs Grieves gave a valued medicinal recipe for Syrup of Violets: “1 lb. of Sweet Violet flowers freshly picked, add 2 1/2 pints of boiling water, infuse these for twenty-four hours in a glazed china vessel, then pour off the liquid and strain it gently through muslin; afterwards add double its weight of the finest loaf sugar and make it into a syrup, but without letting it boil.”
In 1741 St Thomas’ Hospital prescribed an [Incredibly laxative] ‘Lenitive Electuary’ taken from the official London Pharmacopoeia which included: raisins, senna, of “Mercury one Handful”, Figs, maidenhair, Violet Leaves, barley, prunes, tamarinds and liquorice. All were boiled in 10 pints of water then “while warm, dissolve the Pulps of Cassia, Tamarinds, new Prunes, and of Sugar of Violets, of each 6 Ounces. In the other Part of the strained Liquor melt 2 Pound of the ﬁnest Sugar; and lastly, add 1 Ounce and half of Sena Leaves in Powder, and of Coriander Seed powdered 1 Ounce, to every I Pound of the Electuary. Dose from 2 Drachms to 1 Ounce. N.B. It gently relaxes the Belly, and in costive Habits One or a Drachm may be often taken, as Occasion requires, to keep the Body in good Order”.
Violet is now known to contain antiseptic and anodyne Salicylic acid.
Wormwood – Artemisia absinthium, A. Pontica, A. annua
The Bitter Herb that grows in the trail of the Devil. The plant’s name states it was a vermifuge “worm-expeller”. Common Wormwood was valued by the ancients as a treatment for jaundice, dropsy, falling sickness and agues. It was used internationally as a nervine tonic and contains thujone a principle that likely caused absinthe to have the reputation of being hallucinogenic. Mrs Grieve wrote in A Modern Herbal that Nicholas Culpeper recommended “…the best way is taking it in a tincture made with brandy. Hysteric complaints have been completely cured by the constant use of this tincture. In the scurvy and in the hypochondriacal disorders of studious, sedentary men, few things have a greater effect: for these it is best in strong infusion.”
Wormwood was also valued as a febrifuge [against fever] and at St Thomas’ Hospital in the seventeenth century “Herbs used in bulk, like wormwood, were delivered by the horseload, others were brought by the lapful, bundle, bag or flasket.” (McInnes, E. M p42).
The Chinese pharmaceutical chemist and malariologist Youyou Tu (b.1930) received a Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 2015 for her discovery of the compound artemisinin. Tu’s research found that artemisinin sourced from Sweet Wormwood, Artemisia annua a.k.a. qinghaosu 青蒿素 had in the past been successfully used to treat “intermittent fevers”, the hallmark of malaria. Her discovery has already saved millions of lives in South China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.
Xue jie – 血竭 – Dragon’s Blood – Sanguis draconis
Tears of Dragon’s Blood. When the cherry-like fruit of the Dragon’s Blood Palm ripened, it exuded a resinous substance which was collected and steam processed and packed into hollow canes, or balled into beads that were sold threaded like a necklace. In traditional Chinese medical practice Dragon’s blood translates as ‘exhausted blood’ and it was prescribed to relieve pain and re-invigorate the blood. It was an astringent diaphoretic that was generally used against diarrhoea and dysentery. Mrs Grieve recorded “The following treatment is said to have cured cases of severe syphilis. Mix 2 drachms of Dragon’s Blood, 2 drachms of colocynth, 1/2 oz. of gamboge in a mortar, and add 3 gills of boiling water. Stir for an hour, while keeping hot. Allow to cool, and add while stirring a mixture of 2 OZ. each of sweet spirits of nitre and copaiba balsam.”
Listed in the Supplement of the Modern Practice of the London Hospitals, 1764, the prescription for the ‘Strengthening Plaister’ was made with: “common plaister, two pounds; of frankincense, half a pound; of dragon’s blood, three ounces”. St Thomas’ physician Dr Richard Mead used Dragon’s Blood as a general blood tonic and in his Treatise on Small-Pox and Measles, 1754, he directed “…if the body be full of pustules … they must be dried by degrees; and the red aromatic powder springled on them, composed of aloes, frankincense, sarcocol [tree resin], and dragon’s blood” (p123).
Yellow Dock – Lapathum – now Rumex – a.k.a. Curly Dock
Poor Man’s Rhubarb. Dock plants were eaten as a vegetable and were made into an antiscorbutic / anti scurvy ointment. The plants contained a high levels of iron and were used to treat anaemia, liver congestion, scrofula [tuberculosis] and dysentery. Mrs Grieve wrote of the use of the Great Water Dock : “As a stomach tonic the following decoction was formerly much in use: 2 oz. of the root sliced were put into 3 pints of water, with a little cinnamon or liquorice powder, and boiled down to a quart and a wineglassful taken two or three times a day.” In 1741 the St Thomas’ Hospital Pharmacopoeia listed a prescription for a “Diet Drink for a Dropsy [oedema] Take of Broom-tops, and Mustard seed, each 1 Pound, of the Roots of English Orrice, and sharp-pointed Dock, each 12 Ounces, Winter’s Bark, Elder Bark, Seeds of wild Carrot, and Juniper berries, of each I Pound and half; put hem all together into a Bag, to be steep’d in 12 Gallons of unhopp’d Ale, while it works, half a Pint to be drank 2 or 3 times a Day…”.
Within the American magazine Harper’s Weekly of August 8th 1863, the L.Y.D.S. company “Established 1848” advertised “Dr. Leathes Yellow Dock Syrup. Which – Purifies the Blood Invigorates the Body, Gives Tone to the nerves, Strengthens the Muscles, and Health to every Channel, Joint and Limb… Sold by Druggists Everywhere”.
Zingiber officinale – Ginger
The Warming Root. Native to Southeast Asia, Ginger was widely included within medicines that heated the body. Mrs Grieve recommended use of Ginger as an: “Infusion: 1/2 oz. bruised or powdered root to 1 pint boiling water is taken in 1 fluid ounce.” In 1841 St Thomas’ Hospital Pharmacopoeia listed Peruvian Bark mixed with ginger syrup as ‘An Electuary Against the Ague and Fever’ and included the prescription “An Electuary against the Scurvy. Take Conserve of Oranges 1 Scruple, Winter’s Bark in Powder 15 Grains, Aron Root [Egyptian aron / eddo] in Powder, Salt of Wormwood, of each 5 Grains, Syrup of Ginger a sufficient Quantity. Mix it for a Dose, to be taken 3 Times a Day.”
St Thomas’ physician Dr Richard Mead in his Medical Works directed as a treatment for gout “order the powders of snakeroot, ginger, and long-pepper, mixed with the cordial confection, to be taken by the mouth” (Vol 3 p109).
In a letter to the Medical Times and Gazette in 1858, Dr George Britton Halford reported that Dr Mouat of the Medical College at Calcutta had reduced cholera mortality rates using calomel and opium and on the patient’s skin “powdered ginger was rubbed well over the surface, and ice freely supplied. In two cases I have lately attended the same plan has been adopted, and both recovered” (MTG. Vol 9, p254).
Ginger is a natural rennet and contains salicylates that can thin the blood and relieve pain and inflammation.