The origins of evacuatory medicine lie with the humoural system. When a person’s humours became imbalanced this needed to be corrected by removing the ‘bad humours’ from their body. Sometimes this was done through bloodletting, but more often through ingesting emetics for vomiting, diuretics or laxatives.

Sweating and blistering the skin were also thought to help remove toxins from the body. ‘Heroic medicine’, popular in the 1700s and 1800s, was based on the idea that the more you evacuated, and the closer to death you came, the more successful the treatment must be.

When the English physician John Woodward wrote a medical study in 1718, he opened with ‘the Beginnings of all Things, good or bad, to the Body, are in the Stomach’.

The stomach, then, was at the centre of medical treatment and believed to be the central root of disease. Intestinal problems, both constipation and diarrhoea, were frequent complaints. Lack of access to fresh
fruit and vegetables, and an offal and starch-heavy diet meant gastric complaints were commonplace, especially amongst the poor.

Jane Taylor
Recipe Book [late 1600s]

Recipe books were used to treat family, especially children, as well as friends and neighbours. They existed
as family heirlooms that passed medical knowledge, usually from mother to daughter, for the treatment of
the household.

In these recipes for purges and laxatives familiar ingredients including liquorice, aniseed and oranges are combined with herbs and medicinal plants. Taking medical ingredients with alcohol, such as ale,
gin or wine, was common in the 1600s and 1700s. It helped to preserve the medicines, keeping them fresh, as well as making them more palatable. Ale itself could also have medicinal uses and was believed to prevent scurvy, assist sleeping and increase the appetite.

James Gillray
Gentle Emetic (1804)

Emetics were substances which caused vomiting. In Scotland they were often known as a Puke (or Puek).
Emetics were a common treatment for many complaints. Like bloodletting and laxatives, they supposedly removed the ‘bad’ humours from the body that caused disease. Mustard and salt were common household emetics. With the rise of imported goods from the Americas in the 1700s more exotic ingredients began to be used, including Ipecacuanha which was derived from the root of a South American plant.

The use of the word ‘gentle’ in the title of this etching is certainly tongue-in-cheek. Emetics were an aggressive form of treatment, especially for those who were already suffering with a serious disease. In this case the effects of the emetic are clear - the bowl on the table is ready to collect the contents of the patient’s stomach.

Judicium Urinarum
[late 1400s]

This book details uroscopy, the study of urine, which was one of the methods that physicians used to
diagnose patients. In ancient Greek medicine, urine resulted from digestion, or ‘concoction’, of food and
drink. Colour, taste and smell were all indicators of an imbalance of humours and therefore, disease. Although more often physicians chose to diagnose based on colour because urine was seen as unclean.

The evacuation of urine, or diuresis, was also a common form of treatment. Like laxatives and bloodletting, the expelling of urine was believed to relieve patients of many ailments. Popular diuretics in Scotland included easily available items such as leeks, watercress, barley water and strawberries.

Endoscopy capsule

Endoscopy is a diagnostic procedure that was developed in the 1850s in which a scope is inserted down a person’s throat. Capsule endoscopy, first trialled in the 1990s, is used to examine parts of the gastrointestinal tract that cannot be seen through normal endoscopy. A small capsule is swallowed which contains a tiny wireless camera which takes between two and 18 images per second as it passes through the small intestine. The capsule also contains LED lights, a radio transmitter and an eight-hour battery.

Capsule endoscopy is usually used to locate the source of bleeding, inflammation or damage. It is
useful for diagnosing Crohn’s disease, ulcers and gastrointestinal cancer.

Courtesy of The Aberdeen Clinic, TAC Healthcare Group Ltd

This blog was developed to accompany the exhibition FOOD: Recipe or Remedy, which runs from 28 April 2022 to 27 January 2023.

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