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)

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.

Patients in an Asclepeion in Ancient Greece (Wellcome Images/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Patients in an Asclepeion in Ancient Greece ( Wellcome Images CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Tracking The Oldest Plant-Based Medicines In The World

To the modern man, the words ‘medicine’, ‘cures’ and ‘drugs’ conjure archetypal images of white rooms, red crosses, serious costs and insurance wrangles. Hospital waiting rooms and doctor’s surgeries are generally sterile spaces, permeated with associated smells and sounds which will eventually facilitate recovery, but for many even the sight of an ambulance recalls memories and fears of the pain and trauma promised by trips to the hospital, doctor or  dentist. However, thousands of years ago a much different set of smells would have indicated medical environments – floral scents wafting from campfires where plants, fruits, berries and insects were stewed in the preparation of crude anti-septic bandages and swabs to treat hunting injuries.


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Ashley Cowie  is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history .

Top Image 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 )

By Ashley Cowie


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