ADVERTISEMENT

Here’s a book to consider for alternative medical treatments:

MEDICAL HISTORY

“Can Onions Cure Ear-ache? Medical Advice from 1769,” by William Buchan

Eel bile to cure deafness. A poultice of leeks fried in butter to treat hemorrhoids. A swig of brandy to ward off nightmares. These are some of the odd recommendations found in “Domestic Medicine,” a self-help book published in 1769 by Scottish physician William Buchan for people who couldn’t access or afford medical care. The manual, renamed and republished as a historic collection of 18th century medical advice, includes recommendations gleaned from both the folklore and emerging science of the era. Buchan, who took a holistic approach to health, stressed balance and moderation in diet and lifestyle, and he wrote at length about the importance of regular exercise. (His favorite activities included walking, running and digging in the garden.)

He recommended that people make their own breads and liquors to ensure that these dietary staples were “sound and wholesome.” Buchan also advised against trying to use clothing to “mend” the body, describing corsets, girdles and the like as especially dangerous due to “squeezing the stomach and bowels into as narrow a compass as possible to procure, what is falsely called, a fine shape.” (Needless to say, Buchan probably would not have approved of Spanx.)

But many of the recommendations range from humorous to what we now know is downright dangerous. Pills containing mercury, a highly toxic element, were prescribed to cure blindness, while applying mercury to the skin was believed to shrink cancerous tumors. When injecting linseed tea in the urethra failed to cure gonorrhea, rubbing mercury on the inner thighs was considered a good last resort.