Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Alternative treatments for breast cancer: lead, brimstone and parsnips anyone?

Last night I came upon a book, published in 1761 by John Wesley and digitised by Googlebooks, called Primitive Physick, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. It was written as a self-help book, a home remedy manual for diseases from "Obfructed Perfpiration, vulgarly called catching Cold" to cancer, and was designed to save people the money they would otherwise spend on doctors and quacks, by using ingredients they might find easily or about the house. 
It was such a popular book in its day that this was the ninth edition, and the author added "Tried" to some of the remedies within to prove that they worked. Thus one of the "proven" remedies for a certain type of ague (a flu-like condition) is a plaster of treacle and soot, applied to the wrist. While I'm not convinced, this would have given the eighteenth-century reader some hope that they would find success and the impetus to give the remedy a try.

I was fascinated in particular by a section on how to attend to cancer of the breast, shedding more light on some of the things Fanny Burney might have attempted when she discovered her lump at the turn of the nineteenth century. Anything rather than have surgery! Most of them sound healthier than the hemlock and arsenic that Alfred Velpeau experimented with in his 1854 Treatise on the Diseases of the Breast. Only marginally, mind.

I give you an extract here with a warning: don't try this at home...

(From Primitive Physick by John Wesley, published by W. Strahan, 1761. Pages 40 - 41. For ease of reading I've typed s instead of the eighteenth-century preference for it, f:)

24. (Condition no.) A Cancer in the Breast*

99. (Remedy no.) Use the Cold Bath. This has cured many. This cured Mrs. Bates of Leicestershire of a Cancer in her Breast, a Consumption, a Sciatica, and Rheumatism which she had had near twenty Years. —She bathed daily for a Month and drank only Water.

[*A Cancer is an hard round uneven painful Swelling, of a blackish or leaden Colour, the Veins round which seem ready to burst. It comes commonly at first with a Swelling about as big as a Pea, which does not at first give much Pain, nor change the Colour of the Skin]

Generally where Cold Bathing is necessary to cure any Disease, Water drinking is so to prevent a Relapse.

100. If it be not broke apply a Piece of Sheet-lead beat very thin and pricked full of Pin-holes, for Days or Weeks, to the whole Breast. —Purges should be added every third or fourth Day:

101. Or, Rub the whole Breast Morning and Evening with Spirit of Hartshorn:

102. Or, take a mellow Apple, cut off the Top, take out the Core, fill the Hole with Hogs-grease then cover it with the Top, and roast the Apple thoroughly, take off the Paring, beat the Pap well, spread it thick on Linnen, and lay it warm on the Sore, putting a Bladder over it. —Change this every twelve or twenty four Hours:

103. Take Horses-Spurs and dry them by the Fire, 'til they will beat to a Powder. Sift and infuse two Drams in two Quarts of Ale; drink half a Pint every six Hours, new Milk warm. It has cured many. Tried.

104. Or, apply Goose-dung and Celandine beat well together and spread on a fine Rag. It will both cleanse and heal the Sore:

105. Or, a Poultis of wild Parsnips, Flowers, Leaves and Stalks, changing it Morning and Evening:

106. Or, live three Months on Apples and Apple-Water:

107. Or, take half a Dram of Venice-Soap twice a Day:

108. Or, take Brimstone and Gas of Sulphur as Art. This has cured one far advanced in Years.


  1. Brimstone and a gas of sulphur...I'm off to find the goose dung right now...

  2. Let us know if they work, so I can stick "tried" on the blog!