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Friday, 4 April 2014

Take a dose of millipedes

I am working on a new book which has the working title Not Your Usual Treatment, and it will include bizarre folk remedies, quack operations and bizarre devices, all used to "treat" in some way a real or fancied condition. The exact form will emerge from the research and the digging, and here is an example of a "find" and where it has led me, so far.

The hunt began when I was poring over Buchan's 1790 Domestic Medicine. I can't prove it yet, but I suspect that much early colonial medicine was influenced by this volume, or its competitors, and I was fascinated with the huge list of ailments that were amenable to treatment with "Peruvian bark", which is a sort of antique code for quinine.  It was the bark of the cinchona tree.

In the middle of that hunt, I found a gem, but to understand it you will need to know that chin-cough is a dialect word for whooping cough.

The millepedes, or wood-lice, are greatly recommended for the cure of a chin-cough. Those who chuse to make use of these infects, may infuse two ounces of them bruised in a pint of small white-wine for one night. Afterwards the liquor may be strained through a cloth, and a table-spoonful of it given to the patient three or four times a-day.

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 287.

Buchan expressed his reservations about the cure, a few chapters later:

Many dirty things are recommended for the cure of the jaundice ; as lice, millepedes, &c. But these do more harm than good, as people trust to them, and neglect more valuable medicines; be sides they are seldom taken in sufficient quantity to produce any effects. People always expect that such things should act as charms, and consequently seldom persist in the use of them. Vomits, purges, fomentations, and exercise, will seldom fail to cure the jaundice when it is a simple disease; and when complicated with the dropsy, a scirrhous liver, or other chronic complaints, it is hardly to be cured by any means.

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 373.

a woodlouse
a millipede
But there was a taxonomic problem here. The millepede (or millipede as we now write it) is a juliform diplopod, a beastie with many, many pairs of legs, two pairs to each segment. More importantly, I recalled reading in an old textbook (possibly Grassé's Traité de Zoologie) that the diplopods secrete hydrocyanic acid, which would make ingesting them a bit risky.

three views of dead slaters
On checking, I discovered that they actually secrete benzoquinones which are nasty, but not deadly. Still, I wouldn't swallow a diplopod, especially one which had been annoyed by being crushed!

Wood-lice on the other hand are terrestrial crustaceans, known also as pill-bugs, sow-bugs, slaters or grammar sows, among other names, and I guessed that this was what was meant. I confirmed this from a couple of old sources, but I wondered why the millipedes were having their good name delivered to a bunch of land crustaceans, with a different shape and may fewer legs.

Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, had the answer for me:

Millepedes or Woodlice, which roll themselves into Balls, are bred chiefly under Logs of Timber, but not in the Timber…

Francis Bacon, Philosophical Works, vol, 3, 115 (about 1625).

A pill bug!!
A juliform diplopod.
So there we have it: they are grouped because some of the slaters, the ones called pill-bugs, roll up to protect their bellies, and so do juliform diplopods.

Before Linnaeus, any sort of criterion could be applied, if it suited you, and so the millipede was a wood-louse or vice versa, if that suits you.

An addendum posted April 5: I have been doing some further checking and Theophilus Redwood, in his A Supplement to the Pharmacopoeia, London, 1857, at page 163, explains that the correct animal to use is the Oniscus armadillo, which is the beast above, to the right. He says:

Millepedes are prepared by exposing then to the vapour of hot  alcohol, which kills them, In this state they are always contracted into the globular form, and thus are distinguished from the wood-lice, which have sometimes been confounded with them.


Statue of Sir Hans Sloane,
Chelsea Physic Garden.
I wondered about how widespread the practice of medicinal use of wood-lice was, and I landed once again in a favourite place, the garden of Hans Sloane, which I visited in London, eight years ago. The garden is now better known as the Chelsea Physic Garden, and it is a delight to those who know a bit of medical botany.  Where does Sloane come in? Well, it was once his garden.

Portrait of Sir Hans Sloane,
Chelsea Physic Garden.
Sloane was Anglo-Irish and trained as a medical botanist in London and France, but went to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle in 1687. The result was his great Natural History of Jamaica and a dead ex-pirate, because he helped treat that wicked old retired pirate and ex-Governor of Jamaica Henry Morgan, whose main problem was too much grog. (As a side note, one of the themes I am playing with is the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes, but that's for later.)


Sloane and another medico called Fulke Rose treated the poor bloke with millipedes and oil of scorpions. Luckily, a number of his other patients thrived, because Sloane had taken a good supply of "Peruvian bark" with him, and that meant that he could treat malaria (and if Buchan is to be trusted (he couldn't be), Sloane could also treat pleurisy, TB, diphtheria, spotted fever, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, sore eyes, and just about every other ailment in the book,

Sloane did one other useful thing: he tasted cocoa in water and found it bitter, but mixed it with milk and gave it as a medicine. Aside from that and his membership of the Royal Society, Sir Hans Sloane, as he became, leaves the picture now.

But how were "millepedes" prepared?  In the early 1600s, John French offered this recipe for aqua magnanimitatis: the water of magnanimity, which was good for deafness:

"Take of ants or pismires a handful, of their eggs two hundred, of millepedes or woodlice one hundred, and of bees one hundred and fifty. Digest all these in two pints of spirit of wine, being very well impregnated with the brightest soot. Digest them together the space of a month, then pour off the clear spirit and keep it safe."

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought the stuff would do for headaches: as a rule, when one preparation is accorded multiple powers, that indicates something dodgy—but then aspirin eases headaches and thins the blood, so it's not a perfect rule. Here's Willis:

We ought not to omit, or postpone the use of Millepedes or Woodlice, for that the juicew of them, wrung forth, with the distilled Water, also a Powder of them prepared, often-times brings notable help, for the Curing of notable and pertinacious Headaches.

Thomas Willis, Pathologiae cerebri.

The idea of medical millipedes was still around in the 19th century, going on Knapp's 1829 Journal of a Naturalist:

We may even now, perhaps, swallow a few matters, the arcane of the needy or the daring, in the various compositions of powders, draughts, and pills, which are not quite agreeable to our palates or out stomachs; but our forefathers had more to encounters, as they had more faith to support them, when they were subjected, for the cure of their maladies, to such medicines as album græcum, or the white bony excrement of dogs, bleached on the bank, for their heartburns and acidities; the powder produced from burnt mice, as a dentifrice; millepedes or woodlice, for nephritic and other complaints; and the ashes of earthworms, administered in nervous and epileptic cases.

John Leonard Knapp, Journal of a Naturalist, 1829, 337.

And I dug up a 1906 reference in Nature which took me back to William George Black's Folk-Medicine, published in 1883:

A relation of mine was in the cottage of a wise woman at Penzance about two years ago, and found that she was still in the habit of prescribing in scrofulous cases grammar sows, sow-pigs, millepedes or woodlice, to be swallowed as a pill. According to the Penzance woman, the sufferer must himself secure his medicine, but she had a corner in her little garden where nothing was grown but mint and thyme, and there the sow-pigs were reared. As a concession to modern feelings, patients are now allowed to wear this disagreeable medicine in a little bag round the neck, if they shrink from the heroic remedy of swallowing it.

William George Black, Folk-Medicine 1883, 198.

There was also a footnote which gives us a few more names and shows that the practice was widespread in Britain:

Miss M. L. B. 17 October, 1878. "In the Eastern Counties they are called old-sims and sow-bugs, and in other parts St. Anthony's hogs. Their Latin name is porcellio scaber. The Welsh have several names for this insect, — gwrach-y-coed, i.e. the withered old woman of the wood; gwrach-y-lludw.
But how safe were  you, swallowing these things?  Not very, I suspect, given a tale that Edward Wright passed on to the Royal Society in 1755. Wright was in Paris and keen to observe the small animals that Buffon and Needham had been reporting as developing in sealed bottles, which appeared to be cases of spontaneous generation of life. In the way of Fellows of the Royal Society, he experimented and recorded. Details are from Edward Wright, Microscopical Observations, Phil. Trans., 1755, 698.

On May 1, 1752, at 11 in the morning, Wright "…made an infusion of dried millepedes, or wood-lice, such as are commonly kept in the apothecaries' shops. These he put unbruised into a small phial, so as to make it half full; then poured on them as filled it neck and all, stopped it with a well masticated cork, and put it in a pocket, where it was kept in a mild degree of warmth." On examining it that night, he found it "…swarming with oblong, slender, flattish animalcules…"

You can see them on the right. Those are bacteria, I would say, and they can only have come from the dried wood-lice, I think.  Take a dose of wood lice, and you might be in trouble!


Mind you, others who were taxonomically challenged might have been in trouble as well. Imagine what would happen if somebody managed to confuse millipedes with one of these chaps. Centipedes would not be nice to swallow.



So, you see where the idle eye can lead you down some curious by-ways!

PS: I am indebted to my good friend, Marian Drabkin, who found me a Huffington Post article which adds a bit more detail on wood-lice and indicates that they were also good for tooth-ache. I don't think I am finished with this topic just yet...in fact I know I'm not, because I keep coming upon more recipes for "millepedes".


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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.




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