5 Wolves’ Tongues and Mercury: Pharmaceutical Cures for Cancer

5 Wolves’ Tongues and Mercury: Pharmaceutical Cures

Early modern patients diagnosed with cancer were positioned at the centre of debates about gender, the nature of disease, anatomy and the humours. More practically, they also found themselves with a malady that was often painful and disfiguring and had the potential to end their lives. Confronted with such an illness, what was to be done? The following two chapters examine how cancer sufferers, and the medical practitioners who attended to them, attempted to stem or reverse the effects of this disease. I will argue that, in their most potent forms, cancer treatments continued the conceptual separation of patient from disease which was visible in zoomorphic and anthropomorphic descriptions of cancer’s character. In so doing, they diminished the patient’s role in their own cure, while foregrounding an adversarial relationship between medical practitioners and ‘rebellious’ cancerous tumours. Throughout the early modern period, cancer treatments provoked fierce debate over both the nature of disease and the proper limits of medical intervention.

In this chapter, I investigate non-surgical therapeutics for cancer. These are loosely defined as those remedies which did not involve the dreaded ‘Knife or fire’ in cutting or otherwise penetrating the flesh (though as I shall show, this did not mean that such remedies could not cause fissures, intentional and otherwise, in the patient’s skin).Such ‘cures’ were incredibly varied, ranging from strict diets, to unguents such as oil of frogs (made by baking the creatures with butter in their mouths), to powerful purges of hellebore or senna, and toxic caustics including arsenic and mercury.They were also employed by diverse parties: although surviving sources primarily document those cures prescribed by professional medical practitioners, many empirics, apothecaries and lay people had their own opinions on how best to cure a cancer. Despite the apparently disparate nature of these materials, a thread can be traced through cancer therapeutics.

The most comprehensive look at early modern cancer treatments is currently provided by Marjo Kaartinen’s Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century, and the medical landscape that text describes is in many respects similar to the one I explore in this chapter.Kaartinen notes, for example, the continuity of lay and ‘professional’ therapies for cancer and the incomplete distinction of curative from palliative remedies.Moreover, it is clear that many of the therapies employed in the eighteenth century were ones which remained unchanged over several hundred years, even dating back to the medieval period. Receipts made from ingredients such as plants, animal dung and grease were passed down in domestic receipt books and through printed texts of various kinds from the sixteenth into the eighteenth century.

This chapter also looks to scholarship on other, more studied, diseases in order to contextualise some of the methods and ingredients employed in the treatment of cancer. In particular, works on venereal pox have provided valuable details about the unpleasant side-effects of mercury ‘cures’ which may help to explain why this course was such a controversial one in the treatment of cancer.As noted in the Introduction to this book, recent scholarship has also foregrounded the protean nature of the early modern medical marketplace.

The methods by which medical practitioners attempted to treat cancer were diverse, complex and, in many cases, incompletely recorded. With many medical textbooks listing multiple cures, it is likely that more than one avenue of therapy was pursued at any one time, so that, for example, a patient might undergo purging, apply daily salves or lotions, and maintain a modified diet, more or less simultaneously. Broadly speaking, however, it is clear that many early modern patients and medical practitioners subscribed to the intuitive approach of beginning treatment with mild therapies, and moving on to increasingly violent ones if the disease failed to respond.

The first section of the chapter therefore discusses recommendations for the regimen of the cancer sufferer – their diet, the administering of medicinal purges to expel excess humours and bloodletting. Such prescriptions, I argue, were based on an understanding of the disease as humoral in origin and emphasise the responsibility of the patient for their own physical well-being. The second section looks to internal medicaments, unguents and salves which were specific to cancer. Such therapies increasingly treated cancer sufferers as interchangeable, becoming more invested in combatting cancer as an ontologically independent complaint. In the third section, I look at those medicines – usually applied to ulcers and tumours on the body’s surface – with corrosive properties, primarily arsenic and mercury. Unpleasant, and frequently dangerous, such therapies were highly controversial, but, tantalisingly, seemed to promise an ‘eating’ force to rival that of the malignant tumour.


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