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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Dear Doctor, please, don't


If some remedies from about two hundred years ago are mildly amusing or faintly worrying, this one is wholly terrifying:

Swelling in the generative parts: First the patient should be bled in the arm, or leeches may be applied to the inflamed parts, afterwards take a handful of green rue, bruise it, and put it tp the part affected; or take marshmallows a handful, camomile a handful, make a decocotion in a pint of water, pour the liquor from the herbs, add two drams of the tincture of opium, bathe the part, afterwards apply the herbs as a poultice, or make a poultice of oatmeal and vinegar with a little sweet oil in it. Warts and chancres may be destroyed, by touching the warts with a  blue stone vitriol, or a caustic; the other by washing them with a solution of corrosive sublimate.

The Family Physician, Edward Bullman, 1789

How simple it is to write ‘leeches may be applied to the inflamed parts’. Did he know what he was writing? Honestly? I wince whenever I write these words; I’ve copied them in pencil from the original, I’ve transcribed them to computer, and I’ve written them again in this paragraph. I’m still wincing.

Blue stone vitriol was a solution of copper sulphate, effective as an antiseptic, but can burn skin, especially in sensitive areas. Whether it would be preferable to leeches is a difficult call. And 'a solution of corrosive sublimate'? It's mercuric chloride; when you thought things couldn't get any worse, you'll be pleased to know this was formerly used to dissolve corns. 

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