Archive for December 12, 2008

The Ormskirk Medicine

Rabies has long been one of the most dreaded diseases — before the advent of vaccination — it was fatal to all who contracted it.  The Manchester Evening News reports on an interesting bit of rabies-related history:

A REMEDY used to treat dog bite victims on the streets of Manchester in the Victorian era has been rediscovered by historians.

The city streets were once teeming with stray dogs – and one bite from a rabid animal could end in fatal illness.

A number of home-spun remedies were in widespread use throughout Britain before an effective vaccine was created by French scientist Louis Pasteur.

Science historians at the University of Manchester have now uncovered the recipe for one such treatment – known as the Ormskirk Medicine after the town from where it originated – and believe it shows surprising sophistication.

How sophisticated was it?

Dr Emm Barnes, from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, said: “The medicine would not have cured or prevented rabies but it shows quite a sophisticated knowledge of medicine and would have helped treat the wound. The active ingredients in the medicine were aniseed which is a mild antiseptic and a herb called horseheal which is still used by vets today, as well as alum which helps blood clot.

“The mixture would be mixed with vinegar, which is also an antiseptic, and soaked on bandages which would be applied to the skin.

“Pasteur’s new treatment was controversial because it was only the second vaccine ever invented. People still used the Ormskirk Medicine for quite a few years afterwards until it became clear that the vaccine was preventing rabies.”


The first recorded use of  the Ormskirk Medicine pre-dated Pasteur’s treatment by about a century. But — it seems that even before Pasteur first treated a person for rabies in 1885, the Ormskirk Medicine was seen as controversial.  In 1830, T.B. Johnson published his Hunting Directory; Containing A Compendius View of The Ancient and Modern Systems of The Chase.  The book includes a lengthy chapter on The Hydrophobia in which the author discusses dog bites, disease transmission and a biting critique of the Ormskirk Medicine:

The hydrophobia affords a striking instance of successful quackery in the avidity with which the Ormskirk Medicine was purchased, till within these few years that the imposture has been exposed. This compound of calcined oyster shells, elecampane, roach alum, and bole ammoniac, was originally administered gratis ; but no sooner was it discovered that the medicine was eagerly sought after, than the sale of it was advertised ; agents were appointed in different parts ; and many hundreds purchased and took the medicine who had been bitten, but not by mad dogs. A dog accustomed to the country, is generally alarmed when he approaches a town or village — the shaking of a cobler’s apron, or some such thing, is frequently resorted to by the lower orders — the terrified animal takes to his heels, and will most likely snap at any person who attempts to impede his progress.


Nothing is heard but the cry of mad dog ! and many who have been bitten under such circumstances, have called in the assistance of the Ormskirk medicine, and have thus been willing to suppose a disorder prevented, which did not exist in the dog, and which, of course, could not be communicated.

The venders of the Ormskirk medicine, however, made the most of the matter — its infallibility magnified upon the public in the most barefaced manner ; and it was even publicly stated, that such was the virtue of the medicine, that even after the hydrophobia had made its appearance, the disease could be removed by taking it.

Cases, with fictitious names, were stated, and the grossest falsehoods resorted to, in order to levy contributions with more plausibility upon the credulity of the unthinking. I believe, at present, no person who wishes to preserve even an appearance of character, will attempt to palm the medicine upon the world ; but it has still its supporters, and a number of old women, in various parts of Lancashire, still practice the deception ; and shew considerable dexterity in propping its falling reputation.

The recipe was obtained by the late Mr. Hill’s father, who resided near Ormskirk, from an itinerant tinker, in the year 1704. The medicine is thus prepared : — take one tea spoonful of prepared (calcined) oyster shells, one knife point full of roach alum, as much elecampane, in powder, and half a tea spoonful of bole ammoniac ; all to be powdered finely, and given to the patient in the morning fasting, in a little wine and water, or small beer : at the same time the wound is to be dressed with a preparation, varying from that just described, only in a greater portion of roach alum.

Not one dog in twenty, reputed mad, is so in reality — the cure, or rather the prevention, therefore, is certain in many instances ; and where it happens otherwise, and the dog was labouring under the hydrophobia, the result is most melancholy : but then it is immediately and unblushingly asserted, that the medicine had not operated in a proper manner — it had not remained upon the stomach, or been taken in sufficient quantity ; and thus the cheat continues, though on a much more circumscribed scale.

The fact is, that the only certain remedy hitherto discovered for this dreadful disease, is the application of the knife : — the blood becomes infected by the saliva from the dog’s teeth ; and unless the bitten part can be immediately cut out, death will most likely be the result, though the precise time will be very uncertain ; for so capricious is this malady, that, after infection, it sometimes lies dormant, as it were, in the system for months, sometimes for weeks ; while instances, I believe, are not wanting, where it has appeared, in all its terrible symptoms in the course of a few days.

It is possible that a person might be bitten by a mad dog, and yet escape the hydrophobia : if, in the act of biting, the animal’s teeth pass through a thick woollen coat, or other garment, so that his teeth in passing through are wiped dry, he might inflict a wound without any of the infectious saliva or fluid reaching it.

Johnson’s treatise not only presents a scathing indictment of the Ormskirk Medicine, it also provides an interesting discussion on dog bites and – rightly – points out that not all dogs that bite are rabid and not all bites from rabid animals will necessarily result in disease transmission.  But — please note that any time you are bitten by an animal you must either find out it’s rabies status – or undergo treatment.  Remember, with only very rare exceptions — rabies kills everyone who contracts it.

Other treatments used in before Pasteur’s vaccine included: filing the teeth of possibly infected animals down so that they couldn’t bite, herbal treatments including Mad-dog skullcap, cauterisation and excision of bite wounds, vapour baths, sucking the wound, applying caustic treatments and following various rituals including ‘hair of the dog*’.  One doctor even advocated spanking the disease out of a victim. 
* “Hair of the dog” originally referred to applying the hair of the dog that bit you to the wound; or to eating it’s hair, heart or liver on the principle that ‘like cures like’.

December 12, 2008 at 12:11 am Leave a comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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December 2008