Read CHAPTER XIV of Primitive Psycho-Therapy and Quackery , free online book, by Robert Means Lawrence, on ReadCentral.com.

ANCIENT MEDICAL PRESCRIPTIONS

From early times it was a universal custom to place at the beginning of a medical prescription certain religious verses or superstitious characters, which formed the invocation, or prayer to a favorite deity. Angelic beings were frequently appealed to, and among these the Archangel Raphael was thought to be omnipotent for the cure of disease. John Aubrey, in his “Miscellanies,” relates that a certain physician, Dr. Richard Nepier, a person of great piety, whose knees were horny with much praying, was wont to ask professional advice of this archangel, and that his prescriptions began with the abbreviation “R. Ris.” for Responsum Raphaelis, Raphael’s answer. The name of Raphael was often seen on amulets and talismans. But our information regarding this angel is derived chiefly from the Book of Tobit, where Raphael is represented as the guide and counsellor of the young Tobias. In one of the later Midrashim, Raphael appears as the angel commissioned to put down the evil spirits that vexed the sons of Noah with plagues and sicknesses after the Flood, and he it was who taught men the use of “simples,” and furnished materials for the “Book of Noah,” the earliest treatise on materia medica.

A recent writer affirms that [Rx] is the emblem of the sun-god Ra, and signifies “In the name of Ra,” or “Ra, God of Life and Health, inspire me." This deity was regarded as the Supreme Being, not only by the Egyptians, but by other heathen people of antiquity, because the sun was the greatest and most brilliant of the planets.

In Egyptian hieroglyphics Ra was represented as a hawk-headed man, holding in one hand the symbol of life, and in the other the royal sceptre.

The medical symbol [Rx], still in use at the present day, owes its origin, however, neither to the angel Raphael nor to the god Ra. It is the ancient sign of Jupiter. This sign, which also symbolized the metal tin, had many modifications, some of which were as follows: [Symbol: Jupiter], [Symbol: Jupiter], [Symbol: Jupiter].

These were gradually replaced by the letter R, or its astrological modification [Rx], which was equivalent to Recipe, Jupiter, Take, O Jupiter! We are told that the astrological signs were thus brought into use during Nero’s reign, and that the practice of Medicine was then and afterwards regulated by the government. It is not improbable that Christian physicians were obliged to follow the example of their heathen professional brethren in prefixing to their prescriptions invocations to Jupiter.

Johann Michael Moscherosch (1600-1669), a learned German writer, offered a unique explanation of the meaning of the medical symbol [Rx], which he maintained to be equivalent to Rec, an abbreviation for per decem. And he explained the significance of the latter as being that one prescription out of ten might be expected to prove beneficial to the patient. It is certain, wrote Dr. Otto A. Wall, in his volume, “The Prescription,” that pharmacies for the dispensing of medicines on physicians’ prescriptions were already in existence at the ancient Spanish city of Cordova, and at other large municipalities under the control of the Arabs, previous to the twelfth century. And as early as 1233, pharmacy laws had already been passed in the Two Sicilies. By that time, it appears probable that medical prescriptions were no longer mere superstitious formulas, but that they contained directions for compounding material remedies having more or less medicinal virtues.

Modern medical prescriptions may be classed as lineal descendants of the healing-spells of former ages. In the most ancient known pharmacopoeia, a papyrus discovered about the year 1858 in the Necropolis at Thebes, and believed to date from the sixteenth century B. C., no invocations or symbols are found, nor were the latter generally employed as prefixes to medical formulas prior to the first century A. D.; when their use appears to have originated among the Greeks and Romans, and the custom has continued until the present day. At the time of the alchemists, in the sixteenth century, “the influence of the Church on the minds of men, or perhaps the fear of the Inquisition, led physicians to adopt an invocation to the Christian God; just as they abbreviated a prayer to crossing themselves with their fingers over their foreheads and breasts, so they contracted the invocation to the sign of the cross as a superscription."

Thus instead of the sign [Rx] some physicians began their prescriptions with the Greek letters +Alpha.+ +Omega.+; or the letters J. D. for Juvante Deo, C. D. for Cum Deo, or N. D. for Nomine Dei.

Dr. Rodney H. True, lecturer on botany at Harvard College, in a paper on Folk Materia Medica, read at a meeting of the Boston branch of the American Folk-Lore Society, February 19, 1901, gave a list of therapeutic agents, mostly of animal origin, forming the stock in trade of a European druggist some two hundred years ago. This list includes the fats, gall, blood, marrow from bones, teeth, livers, and lungs of various animals, birds, and reptiles; also bees, crabs, and toads, incinerated after drying; amber, shells, coral, claws, and horns; hair from deer and cats; ram’s wool, partridge feathers, ants, lizards, leeches, earth-worms, pearl, musk, and honey; eyes of the wolf, pickerel, and crab; eggs of the hen and ostrich, cuttlefish bone, dried serpents, and the hoofs of animals.

With the development of materia medica in Europe, the use of animal drugs diminished; but during the last decade of the nineteenth century, extracts of animal organs were manufactured on a large scale, and found a ready market. Thus some of the articles mentioned are reckoned among remedial agents to-day, but most of them doubtless owed their virtues to mental action. Wolf’s eyes in former times and bread pills nowadays may be cited as typical remedies, acting through the patient’s imagination and possessing no intrinsic curative properties, yet nevertheless valuable articles of the pharmacopoeia from the standpoint of suggestive therapeutics. In a list of Japanese quack medicines, of the present time, we find mention of “Spirit-cheering” pills.

In “A Booke of Physicke and Chirurgery, with divers other things necessary to be knowne, collected out of sundry olde written bookes, and broughte into one order. Written in the year of our Lorde God 1610,” among many curious prescriptions we find the following: “A good oyntment against the vanityes of the heade. Take the juice of worm woode and salte, honye, waxe and incens, and boyle them together over the fire, and therewith anoynte the sick heade and temples.” The volume referred to was the property of Mr. William Pickering, an apparitor of the Consistory Court at Durham, England.

A commentator on the above prescription observed that few coxcombs, dandies, and heads filled with bitter conceits, would like to be anointed with this cure of self-sufficiency. The wax might make the plaster stick, but it might be feared that the honey and the incense would neutralize the good effects to be expected from the wormwood and salt. If, however, the phrase “vanityes of the head” be interpreted to mean a dearth of ideas, we may assume that the above prescription was intended as a stimulus to the imagination, and as such it might well have a therapeutic value.

Dr. William Salmon, a London practitioner, published in the year 1693 “A Short Manual of Physick, designed for the general use of Her Majestie’s subjects, accommodated to mean capacities, in order to the Restauration of their Healths.”

Mix the ingredients together and digest in my Spiritus Universalis, with a warm digestion, from the change of the moon to the full, and pass through a fine strainer. This Elixer is temperately hot and moist, Digestive, Lenitive, Dissolutive, Aperative, Strengthening and Glutinative; it opens obstructions, proves Hypnotick and Styptick, is Cardiack, and may become Alexpharmick. It is not specially great for any one Single Distemper, but of much use and benefit in most cases wherein there is difficulty and embarrassment, or that which might be done, doth not so clearly appear manifest and Open to the Eye.

The above elixir is a fine specimen of the product of a shrewd charlatan’s fertile brain, and doubtless found a ready sale at an exorbitant price. The fact that one, at least, of its ingredients is mythical, probably enhanced its curative properties, in the minds of a gullible public. The horn of the unicorn was popularly regarded as the most marvellous of remedies. In reality, it was the tusk of a cetaceous animal inhabiting the northern ocean, and known as the sea-unicorn or narwhal. In the popular mind it was of value as an effective antidote against all kinds of poisons, the bites of serpents, various fevers, and the plague.

In describing a scene in the Arctic regions, Josephine Diebitsch Peary wrote as follows in her volume, “The Snow Baby” (1901): 

Glossy, mottled seals swim in the water, and schools of narwhal, which used to be called unicorns, dart from place to place, faster than the fastest steam yacht; with their long, white ivory horns, longer than a man is tall, like spears, in and out of the water.

One of the teeth of the narwhal is developed into a straight, spirally fluted tusk, from six to ten feet long, like a horn projecting from the forehead. This horn is sometimes as long as the creature’s body, and furnishes a valuable ivory. The narwhal also yields a superior quality of oil.

Sir Thomas Browne in his “Pseudo-doxia Epidemica" remarked that many specimens of alleged unicorn’s horn, preserved in England, were in fact portions of teeth of the Arctic walrus, known as the morse or sea-horse. In northern latitudes these teeth are used as material wherewith to fashion knife-handles or the hilts of swords. The long horns, preserved as precious rarities in many places, are narwhal-tusks.

The belief in the medicinal virtues of unicorn’s horn is comparatively modern, as none of the ancients, except the Italian writer AElian (about A. D. 200), ascribed to it any curative or antidotal properties. Sir Thomas Browne characterized this popular superstition of his time as an “insufferable delusion.”

H. B. Tristam, in his “Natural History of the Bible,” remarks that there is no doubt of the identity of the unicorn of Scripture with the historic urus or aurochs, known also as the reem, a strong and large animal of the ox-tribe, having two horns. This animal formerly inhabited Europe, including Great Britain, and survived until comparatively recent times, in Prussia and Lithuania. The belief in the existence of a one-horned quadruped is very ancient. Aristotle mentions as such the oryx or antelope of northern Africa. The aurochs was hunted and killed by prehistoric man, as is shown by the finding of skulls, pierced by flint weapons.

In the Septuagint, the Hebrew word reem was translated monoceros in the Greek text. This is alleged by some authorities to be an incorrect rendering. The Vulgate has the Latin term unicornis, the one-horned.

In Lewysohn’s “Zoologie des Talmuds” is to be found the following rabbinical legend: When the Ark was ready, and all the creatures were commanded to enter, the reem was unable to pass through the door, owing to its large size. Noah and his sons were therefore obliged to fasten the animal by a rope to the Ark, and to tow it behind. And in order to prevent its being strangled, they attached the rope to its horn, instead of around its neck. . . . It was formerly thought that the legendary unicorn was in reality the one-horned rhinoceros, but this seems improbable. The fabulous creature mentioned by classic writers as a native of India was described as having the size and form of a horse, with one straight horn projecting from its forehead. In the museum at Bristol, England, there is a stuffed antelope from Caffraria, which closely answers this description. Its two straight taper horns are so nearly united that in profile they appear like a single horn.

The unicorn of Heraldry first appeared as a symbol on one of the Anglo-Saxon standards, and was afterwards placed upon the Scottish shield. When England and Scotland were united under James I, the silver unicorn became a supporter of the British shield, being placed opposite the golden lion, in the royal arms of Great Britain.