There are many fascinating museums in London which are dedicated to the history of medicine. My favourite has always been the ‘Old operating theatre and herb garret museum’ which is located near the south side of London Bridge. It displays historic surgical instruments and hosts live re-enactments of grisly pre-anaesthetic surgery.
In August 1485, Henry Tudor had just won his crown from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth field. By October of the same year several thousand of his subjects would be dead of a mysterious new epidemic. It was called, ‘The English sweating sickness.’
An ancient remedy found inside an old leather bound manuscript, called ‘Bald’s Leechbook,’ in the British library has been found to kill the MRSA super bug. The recipe which was designed to cure eye infections, called wens or sty’s, could hold the key to killing other antibiotic-resistant super-bugs. Dr. Erin Connelly at Nottingham University estimates that:
‘700,000 people around the world die annually from drug-resistant infections. If the situation does not change, it is estimated that such in will kill 10 million people per year by 2050.’
During a bout of jousting on 24th January 1536, Henry VIII fell from his horse, Smashing to the ground with the fully armour plated horse landing on top of him. Henry lay unconscious and ‘Without speech,’ for two hours.
The impact that the consequent injuries had on his personality, his life and his government are often debated. Henry was a powerful man who was in constant and insufferable pain. His accident, clearly made him very aware of his own mortality and led to unprecedented changes in his life.
If the King had of died on that January day he would have left his kingdom in chaos. Not only because of his lack of a male heir but because Princess Elizabeth was a baby, his first daughter, Lady Mary, had been made illegitimate and his present Queen was the most unpopular woman in the country.
It is thought that only about 10% of all Tudors lived to be beyond their 40th birthdays and one of the reasons was the poor standard of Tudor medicine and medical knowledge.
Smallpox was a highly contagious, potentially disfiguring and deadly disease. There was no cure and no effective treatment.
Henry VIII contracted smallpox, as did his forth wife Anne of Cleaves but his daughter Elizabeth I was the family member to become seriously ill with the disease. In 1562 her doctors thought that she would die. Fear gripped her people because Elizabeth was unmarried and had no heirs. The queen was lucky and she survived with only a few pockmark scars. The ‘cure’ was thought to be caused by ‘the red treatment’ which was administered to the queen by being wrapped in a red blanket and placed by a fire.
Tudor physicians believed that fish could cause leprosy, Fresh fruit was considered unhealthy and the stars could put our bodies ‘humours’ completely out out of balance.
The bills of mortality show that Tudor people thought they could die from things such as: wind, worms, gripping of the guts, the teeth, a cough and even of surprise. There were many other Tudor ailments that we don’t even think of as being fatal or even ailments at all. Tudor beliefs about health and medicine can be very strange to modern eyes.
Readers could be forgiven for feeling that the surviving notes of doctor Hall, who practiced in Elizabethan England are more like spells from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter books than anything like the serious medical documents they were intended to be:
To stop bleeding from the nose a small cloth was dipped into frog spawn and left to dry. This little ‘tent’ was then inserted into the nostril. (Frog spawn was meant to cool burns and inflammation.) Then clay was applied to the forehead, temples and neck. Continue reading “Tudor medicine… Frog’s spawn anyone?”