The Strange Life of Corpse Medicine

The following is an unusual prescription for epilepsy: “take of the powder (whether made by filing, rasping, or, otherwise) of the sound skull of a dead man, and give of it about as much as will lie upon a groat, made up into a bolus with conserve of rosemary-flowers.” If one had to pick a word to describe this disgusting concoction, you might call it “medieval.”

You’d be wrong. The prescription dates from the end of the seventeenth century and the prescriber is Robert Boyle, practically the inventor of the science of chemistry. As Richard Sugg observes in his book Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, the medical use of human bodies thrived in the early modern era rather than the middle ages.

Whether it was “mummy” (as likely to be the flesh of the recently dead as genuine preserved Egyptian), blood, fat, or moss grown on the back of a human skull, early modern doctors and patients were wild for corpse medicine. As Sugg’s pithily puts it: “James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine.” Boyle was one keen user, experimenting with skull-grown moss (usnea), blood, or mummified flesh. So was the “father of neuroscience,” Thomas Willis, the poet John Donne, and the Paracelsian chemist Jean Baptiste van Helmont.The fact that prescribing human parts thrived at the same time as the Scientific Revolution – often even with the same individuals – actually makes perfect sense. Only a few ancient and medieval doctors prescribed corpse medicine. If the Galenic corpus remained the basis of medical teaching, corpse medicine would never have thrived. But the vigorous and wild empiricism of the Scientific Revolution gave license to all sorts of strange experiments. Shakespeare’s “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” is the credo of a experimental era not one of received wisdom. (I realize I’m oversimplifying here, but indulge me for a minute.) The human body is a complex machine, one that even today foils attempts to judge the efficacy of all sorts of medical treatments (and let’s not even get started on the placebo effect).It’s no surprise that it was experimentalists like Boyle and Willis who were willing to try corpse medicine. And frankly, it shouldn’t be a surprise that corpse medicine seemed no less predictably successful than other treatments, given the information at their disposal.

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