Friday, May 13, 2011

History: The Practical Poultice

A surgeon at sea, whether or not he (or she) was practically trained a la Stephen Maturin or was  a person whose relative knowledge of certain tools made them the ship’s de facto healer, had to be creative. While pirates and privateers had relatively frequent access to plants and animals to assist in their cures, naval ships might be at sea for long months with no land in sight. Planning ahead, and being willing to improvise, were vital to anyone looking after the sick and injured aboard ship. That is why the poultice was such a popular medicine for everything from burns to sprains, from gangrene to toothache.

A poultice, though it may take various forms, boils down to a wet compress applied to an injury or wound and then wrapped in clean cloth. This form of treatment has been documented since physicians and nurses wrote down their recipes, and that is a very long time. What may surprise the casual reader about poultices is how carefully they were created and tended to throughout history. As modern people we all too frequently imagine our ancestors neglecting treatment of injuries and even hygiene but in fact that is a myth that only feeds our sense superiority.

According to the documentation that has come down to us, both nautical and home spun, from the 17th through the early 19th centuries, poultices should be applied at body temperature so as not to shock the patient with hot or cold. Recommendations for changing the poultice vary, but Mrs. Childs in her book The Family Nurse (originally published in 1837) says:

[Poultices] are usually changed every two or three hours; but in common cases, there is no need of rising in the night to attend to it. When there is great pain, they should be renewed more frequently.

Alexander Exquemelin, buccaneering memoirist and house physician here at Triple P, noted that gangrenous or “mortified” wounds should have the poultice changed every fifteen to twenty minutes until healthy skin reappeared, when the physician may allow thirty minutes between changes. Foreshadowing Mrs. Childs, the buccaneers used a poultice of animal dung (horse, cow or goat) boiled in urine and applied warm for such injuries. Mrs. Childs sticks with horse manure specifically.

A very common base throughout the era was what is called a bread or biscuit poultice. This is made by boiling milk with either bread crumbs, cracker crumbs or crumbs from ship’s biscuit. Used on its own for common inflammations, insect stings and allergic reactions, the biscuit poultice was also expanded with the use of various additives such as:

Flax seed: used powdered, this would encourage “suppuration” according to Mrs. Childs. It was also thought to pull venom from snake bites.

Sumach: the inner bark would be scraped off and boiled, after which it could be bottled for easy transport. This type of poultice would help boils and other such afflictions come to a head and take down swelling in sprains and strains.

Cinchona: also known as Peruvian bark it was prepared much like sumac and used to fight fevers, although it was far more frequently ingested than applied as a poultice.

Marshmallow and hops: both are listed as “quieting”; hops in particular were used to ease migraine.

Charcoal or black powder: both were considered excellent for “mortification”. Black powder was sometimes stuffed into an open wound and ignited to cauterize it. Curiously, Dave Canterberry and Cody Lundin of the Discovery Channel show “Dual Survival” actually did this in a recent episode, with surprisingly successful – if painful – results (see the video here).

If milk was not available, water could be used. Vinegar was also considered a good all purpose base for poultices.

The list could go on and on, which is why a well made poultice was such a staple of early modern medicine. What ever was at hand could be used as long as the preparer had a general idea of what they were doing and what was ailing their patient. At sea, of course, the options for ingredients might be diminished. All the more reason, then, for creativity and nerve.

Header: Morning Break – Stephen Maturin by kyla79 at


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Finally catching up on the blog after a week away from computer access...

Personally, I find that my hops are far more frequently ingested than applied as a poultice as well... ;-)

Nice tie in to the Dual Survivor show too, btw.

The picture at the header is funny. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon version of Steven Maturin... Where is Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and thankee! No manure poultices for this family any time soon, though.

I, as you know, love the Dual Survivor. I've got just a touch of a crush on Cody.

I also love kyla79's take on Stephen; very refreshing. When I get time I want to hop over to DeviantArt and go through her catalogue. Hopefully I can find more of her work to share.

Charles L. Wallace said...

"... hops in particular were used to ease migraine."

hahaha! Works for me :-)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles! What ever works, right?