An Adam's apple a day keeps the doctor away? History is full of bizarre medical remedies, but few are as gruesome as the field of corpse medicine. Many doctors, from ancient times to modern, prescribed concoctions made of human organs, salves of human fat, and the ground-up remains of embalmed corpses to treat a host of ailments and promote good health. Put aside your lunch and read all about the various cannibalistic cures sent down the throats or slathered over the skin of the sick and dying.
Modern medicine uses corpse tissue to aid the living; in addition to organ transplants from brain dead donors, cadaver skin is used a stopgap for burn victims before they can receive grafts of their own skin and cadaver bone can be used in grafts as well. And it's no surprise that the precursor experiments to modern blood transfusion involved the consumption and transfusion of cadaverous blood. But from ancient times to modern, many people, including well-respected physicians, have believed that human tissue has special vital qualities that could be transferred from the dead to the living. Seventeenth-century Europe in particular is filled with accounts of corpse medicine, with physicians and chemists devote their energies to creating tinctures of human flesh and bone. The items listed below aren't components of ritualistic or symbolic cannibalism seen in some cultures, but professed medicines that prominent physicians and medical historians recorded as scientific cures:
Mummy Powder: From the 12th through the 17th century, any European apothecary worth his smelling salts kept a supply of mummy powder on hand. Mummy was the health food of the Middle Ages, guaranteed to cure everything from headaches to stomach ulcers, and plasters made from mummy powder were often slathered over tumors. Humans weren't the only beings alleged to benefit from mummy; sick hawks were thought to benefit from their own grade of mummy powder. The demand for mummified far outweighed the supply; one couldn't just walk up to a pyramid-shaped rock and start digging. One could, however, dig up some dead and desiccated bodies, grind them down, and sell them as "mummy powder." It's doubtful anyone ever noticed the difference.
What's particularly interesting about the mummy powder remedy is that the entire fad might have arisen from a misunderstanding. Naturally occurring bitumen from the Dead Sea was a commonly prescribed medication in ancient times for all sorts of ailments: cataracts, leprosy, gout, dysentery, clotted blood, shortness of breath, rheumatoid arthritis. The Persian word for wax, mumia, was often used to describe bitumen, and it's from that same word that we derive our word "mummy." Mumia also refers to another substance (which was not bitumen) that was used in the embalming of mummies. When apothecaries were not able to obtain naturally occurring bitumen (mumia, they sometimes turned to this false bitumen (also mumia), which they supposedly obtained from ground-up mummies. Eventually conventional wisdom held that it was the mummy itself, not the substance used in its embalming, that contained the medicinal qualities. In medical treatises, the words "mumia" and "mummy," became synonymous.
Mellified Man: Take one male volunteer aged 70 or 80, and bathe him and feed him with nothing but honey. Upon his death (usually within a month), seal him in a coffin filled with honey. Age for 100 years, then break the seals. The recipe for mellified man, a confection could allegedly treat broken and wounded limbs, appears in Chinese naturalist Li Shih-chen's compendium, Chinese Materia Medica, published in 1597. Although Li heard rumors of mellified men being prepared in Arabia, he was not able to confirm the veracity of these reports, which is a shame since mellified man sounds like a much more palatable treat than plain old mummy powder.
The King's Drops: This concoction, made from essence of powdered human skull, was made popular thanks to a royal endorsement. Charles II of England, who became very interested in chemistry during his exile in France, purchased the rights to the remedy for £6,000 from Jonathan Goddard, a famous surgeon and professor at London's Gresham College. Formerly "Goddard's Drops," this panacea became known as the "King's Drops," and Charles II manufactured and sold it himself. While skull was a key ingredient in this draught supposed to promote health and vigor, the presence of opium probably helped its heady effects along. Plenty of other physicians developed skull-based medications, including Sir Kenelm Digby, who treated epileptics with the skull of a man who had died a violent death, and Thomas Willis, who thought a little chocolate mixed with human skull was the best cure for apoplexy.
Gladiator Livers and Blood: In ancient Rome, human liver and blood were considered powerful treatments for epilepsy, and it was best if that liver was fresh and came from someone healthy, strong, and brave (no livers of the yellow or lily variety, please). So, if you suffered from epilepsy, it might behoove you to hang out around the colosseum, just in case one of those healthy, strong, brave gladiators happened to get a sword through the gut. In fact, immediately after fatal bouts, people could be found drinking blood straight from a fallen gladiator's arm, and concession stands sold the blood while it was still warm.
Spirit of Human Brains: In the 17th century, distilled brains rather than raw liver was prescribed as an epileptic cure. The English physician John French and the German chemist Johann Schroeder both recorded recipes for gray matter cures, although French's was the less appetizing of the two. French recommended grinding the brains of a young man who had died violently to a pulp, and then steeping them in wine and horse dung for half a year prior to distillation. Schroeder called for a more floral cerebral tincture, infusing three pounds of human brain with water of lily, lavender, and malmsey. Schroeder, however, may have prepared far more gruesome distillations, including one made by taking an entire corpse, chopping it into small pieces, and then mashing it into a paste before soaking and distilling it.
Sweat of a Dying Man: Another 17th-century English physician, George Thomson believed that no part of the human body should go to waste, including the excrement. The sweat of a dying man was Thomson's prescribed cure for hemorrhoids, although if your local hangman wasn't thoughtful enough to capture the perspiration, you could always rub a dead man's hand over the, um, affected area. Similarly, the touch of a hanged man's hand was believed by many to cure cysts and warts, and even into the 19th century there are reports of people who, after public hangings, would rub the hanged person's hand on their cysts.
Human Fat Ointments: For sufferers of joint and bone pain, muscle cramps, and nerve damage, salves of extruded human fat, often mixed with animal fat, blood, marrow, and beer, were recommended. In some regions of Europe, executed criminals and slain enemies combatants would be brought to processing labs, where their corpses would be boiled and their fat rendered. Hangmen in the Netherlands sometimes held the job of surgeon-executioner, tightening a man's noose one day and selling ointments made from his corpse the next. An article in the October 1922 issue of the American Journal of Pharmacy claimed that "Hangman's Salve," also known as "Poor Sinner's Fat," was still in vogue among the Dutch to treat dislocations and lameness. However, given that the Netherlands had outlawed capital punishment 70 years earlier, it was unlikely that these "human salves" were the genuine article.
Tai Bao Capsules: Cannibal medicine may not be completely a thing of the past. In her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach mentions reports of a medication called Tai Bao Capsules, which were supposed to contain not corpses but powdered placenta and aborted fetal tissue. The pills are reported to improve stamina, treat asthma, and beautify skin. In attempting to verify whether powdered abortus was really being used as medication, Roach reached out to a colleague in China who was, through friends, able to find physicians at Shenzhen People's Hospital who claimed these capsules did indeed contain fetus tissue, although another physician (who incidentally believed in the health benefits of ingesting fetal tissue) said she believed the reports were exaggerated. Still, reports of these capsules persist. After South Korean customs officials reported seizing pills containing powdered human tissue coming from China, the Chinese Ministry of Health launched an investigation into the allegations. Earlier this month, South Korean custom officials claimed to have seized 17,500 such pills over the last year.
Mummy photo from Wikimedia Commons.
M.A. Von Andel, 'Adeps Hominis: A Relic of Prehistoric Therapy,' American journal of pharmacy, Volume 94, 1922.
Warren Dawson, ‘Mummy as a Drug,' Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 1927; 21:34-39.
Maria Dolan, 'The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine,' Smithsonian.com, May 7, 2012.
Mark Greener, Mumia: ‘medicine' made from mummified corpses, Uncanny UK, 2011.
Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Richard Suggs, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, Routledge, 2011.
Zhou Wenting and Liu Mingtai, 'Ministry investigates pills made of "baby flesh,'" China Daily, Aug. 10, 2011.
'S Korea "to target powdered human flesh capsules,"' BBC, May 7, 2012.