Having fried your leeks in butter, form them into a poultice and apply it to your backside. No, not Heston Blumenthal’s latest wheeze: instead the cure for piles advocated by William Buchan, 18th-century author of Domestic Medicine, now republished as Can Onions Cure Ear-ache? (Bodleian Library, £14.99). The new title gives you a clue to Buchan’s general style (poultice again). He also recommended holding burns near a fire and rubbing salt on them, while mere bruising called for the application of cow dung. Gonorrhoea (‘the fruit of unlawful embraces’) could be defeated by rubbing mercury on the inner thigh. Bleeding was a particular favourite among Buchan’s armoury — he championed it for measles, jaundice, ear-ache (before the onions, that is), and even after resetting a dislocated neck.
All good fun, an excuse to laugh at Georgian quackery. But, as Robert Winston points out in the foreword to this interesting and entertaining book, Buchan deserves more respect than that. Many of the entries call for healthy living to prevent disease in the first place, advice that holds up today. And though some of his remedies were indeed dangerous, others worked simply because people believed they would. Winston stresses the role of the placebo effect, giving a modern example; coal-miner patients of GPs who were enthusiastic about a new drug for breathlessness benefited more than those of doctors who weren’t. As Buchan himself put it: ‘How the mind affects the body, will in all probability ever remain a secret.’