J. C. McKeown’s Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle opens a delightful cabinet of surprising facts from the healing arts of Greece and Rome

‘A doctor should not quote poetry in support of his opinions, for such earnest zeal suggests incompetence.’ This quotation from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is one of the epigraphs to J. C. McKeown’s eye-opening (and occasionally eye-watering) A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome. Yet ‘incompetence’ is clearly the name of the game when it comes to the ancients’ attitudes to healing and curing people. The man who gave his name to the famous oath may have spurned poetry as a means of supporting medical advice, but reading McKeown’s meticulously compiled selection of surprising cures and baffling remedies makes one wonder whether, if you got sick in classical times, having a few hexameters of Homer recited at you might not have been slightly more effective than whatever potion or dressing was proposed by the local quack. Medicine – as in effective, evidence-based medicine – really is a very modern thing. For much of recorded time, our ancestors fumbled about in the dark, relying on superstition or odd logic to come up with possible correctives.

McKeown’s book is divided into fourteen chapters on a variety of themes, including ‘the doctor in society’, ‘attitudes to doctors’, ‘sex matters’, ‘women and children’, ‘preventive medicine’, and, of course, ‘treatment and cures’ (which gets two chapters). Within each chapter, McKeown has assembled an impressive range of sources from the classical world, such as Galen and Aristotle, but also less familiar figures including Apollodorus, Soranus, and the wonderfully named Cassius Iatrosophista, a Greek medical writer from nearly 2,000 years ago who is known as the author of Quaestiones Medicae et Problemata Naturalia.

Pliny the Elder, as one might expect, features heavily for his prolific advice on all manner of medical conditions. According to his Natural History, menstrual blood turns new wine sour, makes grain fields sterile, dries up seeds, makes fruit drop from trees, dulls the bright surface of mirrors, rusts bronze and iron, and even makes dogs rabid. ‘If menstruating women walk naked round a field,’ Pliny tells his readers, helpfully, ‘caterpillars, worms, beetles, and other pests fall off the crops.’ So it’s not all bad.

Meanwhile, in the ‘sex matters’ chapter, we learn from Aëtius that ‘the testicles of castrated mules, roasted and then mixed with the juice of the willow tree boiled in water, act as a contraceptive’ while Paul of Aegina advises those who have no enthusiasm for sex to ‘burn a gecko and grind the ashes to a fine powder, pour on some olive oil, smear the big toe of your right foot with the mixture, and then have intercourse.’ Hippocrates, of the famous oath, tells us that ‘uninhibited fornication cures dysentery’.

If you’re constipated, meanwhile, then in the ‘treatment and cures’ chapters we are informed (by Caelius Aurelianus) that ‘swallowing a lead pill is beneficial to many people’, for ‘by its weight it pushes against and thrusts out whatever is causing the obstruction’. Even more remarkable is Dioscorides’s extensive (and worryingly specific) list of afflictions which the various types of dung can be used to treat: cow dung, for instance, can cure sciatica, a prolapsed uterus, and bone inflammation; goat dung is good for jaundice, baldness, gout, and snakebite; donkey and horse dung is recommended for scorpion stings and general bleeding; and dog muck is good for tonsillitis (as is human ordure, apparently: quite where the dung is meant to be applied, one can only guess, and shudder). Crocodile dung was used in cosmetics for women’s faces, which brings a whole new meaning to the idiom ‘to get sh*tfaced’.

A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome is a wonderfully rich source of ancient information (or perhaps, more accurately, misinformation), ideal for dipping into for education and amusement, and the perfect gift for history buffs and people interested in the curious history of medicine.

Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

11 thoughts on “J. C. McKeown’s Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities”

  1. Horrifyingly enough the ‘lead pill’ was still in use in the 19th century. It’s great advantage was that it was an one-off purchase as it could be retrieved, washed and used again. By the whole family.

  2. Well you could turn the tables slightly and do one of your lists of poetry by physicians (or nearly so), perhaps poems that might have medical connections. Fewer poet/physicians come to mind off the top of my head. Henry Vaughn, Thomas Campion, William Carlos Williams, Frederick Schiller, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and the list runs cold–but you could take the near-cases like Keats and Gertrude Stein, and I believe Andre Breton might fall into either class.

  3. And yet there were some perfectly sensible use of herbs (unconnected with burnt geckos, dung, or menstrual blood) that go back thousands of years and in different classical cultures, and which ‘modern medicine’ can find reason for.

    Mind you, turning tables, I wonder (this is particularly around skin care products, a particular bugbear of mine, jammed full of synthetic novel chemistry) in ten, twenty or thirty years time will people be looking in horror at what is being used…………

    Ferretpower’s re-usable lead pill has made me feel distinctly queasy though……….

    • Yes, what is equally remarkable is how the ancients managed to find the right cure for something (largely through trial and error, I’d guess) – as you say, some of our modern-day cures are mere developments of earlier ones. I know, that lead pill doesn’t warrant too much contemplation, does it…!

  4. I had the pleasure of taking a course from Dr. McKeown many years ago—he was very much as you’d imagine from the books. Great stores of knowledge and an impish sense of humor :)


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