Nature’s Medicine Cabinet: Ancient Medicines, Remedies and Tinctures That Worked

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A surgeon letting blood from a woman's arm, and a physician by a Flemish painter (18th century) (Wellcome Images / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nature’s Medicine Cabinet: Ancient Medicines, Remedies and Tinctures That Worked

When those unfortunate moments occur in life that require medical assistance, one should be thankful to be alive today and not even as far back as the last decade. Common ailments like halitosis may be treated with a fluorine based antibacterial toothpaste, but in historical times elephant bile was a great remedy. For less common conditions such as genital ulcers, the bile of a pythons might have been prescribed, and while modern medics treat warts with acids and lasers, in the ancient world snail slime was applied. Furthermore, when modern children cough, they get a sweet syrupy medicine to soothe their throats, but in some parts of the not so ancient world nothing was deemed better to cure a childhood cough than a dose of heroine. Some people also swished urine to whiten their teeth.

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment, True Life in the Far West, 200-page pamphlet illustration. Worcester, Massachusetts, (c. 1905) (Public Domain)

Ancient remedies may sound like a little shop of medical horrors, but as luck would have it, from this historical cabinet of greatly biologically-useless remedies, several cures emerged that modern science agrees have demonstrable medical properties. To the ancient ancestors, knowing the chemical properties of the plants and animals in the natural world, was actually a matter of life and death.

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