I have had a couple of posts on the use of body parts in medicine. The first last fall, was about the use of placenta in post-partum women. The other, just a couple of days ago, focused on the Korean market for pills composed of foetal material. Just today, I noticed an article on the Smithsonian Institute’s website by Maria Dolan entitled: “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine” which discusses the practice as described in two new books: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires, by Richard Sugg and Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture by Louise Noble.
…for several hundred years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, many Europeans, including royalty, priests and scientists, routinely ingested remedies containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy. There were few vocal opponents of the practice, even though cannibalism in the newly explored Americas was reviled as a mark of savagery. Mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs, and skulls were taken from Irish burial sites. Gravediggers robbed and sold body parts.
“The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” says Sugg. The answer, at first, was Egyptian mummy, which was crumbled into tinctures to staunch internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. And King Charles II of England sipped “The King’s Drops,” his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol. Even the toupee of moss that grew over a buried skull, called Usnea, became a prized additive, its powder believed to cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy. Human fat was used to treat the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout.
Blood was procured as fresh as possible, while it was still thought to contain the vitality of the body. This requirement made it challenging to acquire. The 16th century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus believed blood was good for drinking, and one of his followers even suggested taking blood from a living body. While that doesn’t seem to have been common practice, the poor, who couldn’t always afford the processed compounds sold in apothecaries, could gain the benefits of cannibal medicine by standing by at executions, paying a small amount for a cup of the still-warm blood of the condemned. “The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade.
The magical thinking that accompanies the type of medicine has two areas of rationale. first, the concept of ‘like cures like’, although popularized by Samuel Hahnemann of homoeopathy fame, has been a concept in treatments for centuries. The other was attached to the belief that some of the ‘spirit’ of the deceased could be passed on through ingestion of body parts or fluids.
Romans drank the blood of slain gladiators to absorb the vitality of strong young men. Fifteenth-century philosopher Marsilio Ficino suggested drinking blood from the arm of a young person for similar reasons.
Dolan gives examples of the practice continued into the 19th and even 20th century.
But Sugg found some late examples of corpse medicine: In 1847, an Englishman was advised to mix the skull of a young woman with treacle (molasses) and feed it to his daughter to cure her epilepsy. (He obtained the compound and administered it, as Sugg writes, but “allegedly without effect.”) A belief that a magical candle made from human fat, called a “thieves candle,” could stupefy and paralyze a person lasted into the 1880s. Mummy was sold as medicine in a German medical catalog at the beginning of the 20th century. And in 1908, a last known attempt was made in Germany to swallow blood at the scaffold.
I can only assume that Suggs (or Dolan) was unaware of the current practice in the far east.
Dolan concludes with comparing these practices with the trade in illicit body parts. Claiming that a transplant where the organ is from a corpse where prior consent was not given is very much the same as corpse medicine from the past. In some ways an ethical argument can be made to link the two, but most ethicists are in agreement that prior consent is an integral part of the process, and of course, the magical thinking that accompanies corpse medicine rather than the actual science involved in transplants and transfusions.
I can not emphasize enough that the type of thinking behind corpse medicine is not different that the thinking behind much of modern CAM practices.