Kill or cure: Georgian medicine

Georgian medicine: introduction

The best way to live a long and healthy life is stay away from doctors and never take medicine. Such was the philosophy of a relative of mine who made it to 94, before dying of cancer a few weeks after it was diagnosed. 

His younger brother took a daily cocktail of drugs after suffering a heart attack: most of which were to counter the side-effects of drugs he was taking to counter the side-effects… of the heart pills keeping him alive.

Modern medicine may not be perfect. In Georgian times, the best way to live a long and healthy life was never to get ill.

For if you did, turning to a doctor or Georgian medicine was as likely to kill as to cure.

Beware imitations

I have already touched on ‘quack cures’:  pills and potions promoted in local newspapers that at best contained no active ingredients, and at worst contained mercury or hemlock.

But what if you didn’t trust Dr Brodum’s Botanical Syrup and Nervous Cordial (price 1 shilling and 2d)? Or couldn’t get hold of Barclay’s Ointment for the Itch?

Well, there were always traditional home remedies. And Cumbrian newspapers sometimes provided suggestions.


NB. The following definitely come under the old warning: For Entertainment Purposes Only!

If you want to try herbal remedies, go to somewhere like Holland and Barrett* for advice. AND bear in mind even ‘harmless’ things like grapefruit can interract badly with heart medicine (as an example).

*no, they are not paying me to say that!

Georgian medicine recipes


Dr Thornton, it is said, has discovered a specific in scarlet fevers, viz 25 drops of foxglove, given every three hours, day and night. By this simple means, he lately saved children of the St Pancras Female Charity School, all of whom had ulcerated throats and other signs of that fatal disease.

(Foxgloves, it is well-known, are a source of digitalis. Ingesting foxgloves in any form is basically taking a random, dangerous, and possibly fatal does of heart medicine). 

1801 December. The following recipe has been attended with surprising success at this season of the year when numberless individuals have suffered daily from colds, fevers, and bowel complaints.

Take four ounces of angelica seeds, a handful of dried baum and four ounces of wood betony (not the root) or wood sage, boil them in a quart of water till half reduced, then as as much Narbonne honey as the stomach will bear. Take two tablespoonsful three or four times a day.


Recipe for a consumption. two ounces of the expressed juice of horehound mixed with a pint of cow’s milk, sweeteened with honey, to be taken every morning fasting.

If a pint be more than will sit easily on the stomach, take half a pint morning and evening.

(Marrubium (horehound or hoarhound) = a flowering wild plant in the mint family. White horehound tea to this day is used for a variety of complaints, including TB)

A peach stone, baked in an oven or dried in the fire, then pounded fine in a mortar and given in a suitable vehicle is a sovereign remedy for pleurisy. It produces a profuse sweat and almost always gives ease.

That would be the cyanide. Another definite ‘do not try this at home’ 


Recipe for consumption. Take fresh nettles every day, press out the juice, and give the patient a tablespoon full before rising, at noon and at bed-time, with a tea cup full of red brandy or port.

The diet of the patient should include broth made from the nettles, and roast beef or mutton. Avoid sour food and highly seasoned food.


Fluid essence of mustard is perhaps the most active, penetrating and effectual remedy in the world, curing chilblains and the severest sprains and bruises.

Recipe for rheumatism. Take two garlic cloves, gum ammoniac (one dracm) and blend them into two balls with fair water and swallow one at night and one in the morning. Also, drink sassafras tea, made very strong, so as to have the teapot filled with chips…. £100 has been given for this recipe.

‘Uses of gum ammoniac’ today pulls up lots of references to gilding and art materials. Sassafras is banned in the US as unsafe for human consumption, because it causes cancer in rats. 


For the acute rheumatism, a quarter of a pound of salt-petre (pounded as fine as sand) and put into a quart of vinegar, simmered in a pan close by the fire till the nitre is dissolved, then bottled. Rub into the affected area twice a day.

Not too close to the fire, perhaps. 

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