The medicine in your back yard

Posted By on October 23, 2011

In preparing for a fantastic event at Fort Ligonier this weekend, I dug deep into some French medical literature, and came upon an herb that was used by the French called chiendent.  Translated, it is Quackgrass.

Quackgrass is very common to everyone, as it grows in every grassy yard I’ve ever seen. The plant that has the blades of grass that peel off a reed in your yard, is quackgrass.

This stuff.

Quackgrass, in the 18th Century, was used by French apothecaries and more than likely Sage-femmes (midwives), as a dieuretic and for its antiseptic properties.  As we know, most herbal remedies and other medicines of the perdiod are truly not effective, either at all or for what they were originally indicated for, but in this case Quackgrass does have some efficacy.

It is highly used for its effect on the kidneys, and when your dog/cat is digging in the yard and eating a certain grass for upset stomach, Quackgrass is what they’re eating!  Apparently it does work for them!  More information on how quackgrass can be used can be found here:

But this got me thinking about other things that are considered weeds in our yards today that were used or can be used for medicine today.  Another prime example is dandelion.

Dandelion, while typically described as a weed as well, has had an expansive history of use.  Culpeper’s Complete Herbal describes another name for these

Just in case you didn't know what "piss-a-bed" looked like. 🙂

flowers as “piss a bed”, and states that the French and the Dutch eat them frequently in the spring.  Culpeper states that it can be used for issues of the liver, as a dieuretic, and that it also helps with rest and sleep, among some other ailments.

You can enjoy Dandelion greens even today as a nice salad, fried even, and I know of several wineries make Dandelion Wine, which is quite tasty.  Medicinally, western herbalists use dandelions in a similar way of Culpeper, the French, and the Dutch, as a diuretic, and for treating liver diseases, such as  cirrhosis and hepatitis.

So the next time you’re about to mow the lawn, take a few minutes to scope it out for Dandelion and Quack-Grass.  You never know when you may need either.

How much information is too much?

Posted By on July 29, 2011

The past few months have been a whirlwind of events and that pesky real life getting in the way.  I actually spent Niagara in resting mode (I needed a vacation to just sit and enjoy being in the 18th Century), but I’ve also done more first person interpretation at Historic Londontown in the weeks missing here, and I’ve just returned from Fort La Presentation in Ogdensburg, NY.

This year at Ogdensburg, I lectured on 18th Century medicine.  Anyone who has seen my setup, read my blog, or had a conversation with me about this topic knows that I can speak at length, and then some, but for this engagement I had a 45 minute interval in which to impart my knowledge in.  So what was important to discuss?  What information did I want them to take away from the presentation?  How much information is too much information?  Should I focus on the French perspective, or do British as well?  Do I use props? So many questions to overthink!

Lecturing seems different than just talking to a bunch of students for 25 minutes, with all of my tools in front of me.  I felt as if I had to impart as much generalized information instead of the specifics on what this tool did and what that tool did, or how that medicine was used for x,y, and z.  I had to show the different types of caregivers, and their educations, backgrounds, etc.  And even as we worked on an outline during the drive up, there was still so much information that I was continuing to have to cut out of my presentation.

When you’re passionate about a topic, it seems that there is endless stores of information you want to disseminate to the public, to attempt to make them as passionate as you.  When there are half truths and plain out fabricated facts as well, you want to make sure to give people the right information.  And you also want to make it interesting so that the audience isn’t falling asleep.  So you have to pick and choose wisely.  Stick with the basics and add little gems of information when you can so that you make people perk up, and make their eyes get wide.  I kept using cues from one lady in my audience who’s eyebrows would raise when I would state a new fact that she didn’t really know about medicine, which was extremely encouraging for me.

In the end, my talk ended up being about 40 minutes out of 45.  I only added a few props, and I did my best to stick to the outline, though I did stray once or twice.  I received excellent feedback, from both the individuals at my presentation and the organizers.  So I suppose I had just enough information to pass on! Hurrah!

Me at my presentation

Me about to start the presentation, I think. Many thanks to Beth C for the picture!




Musings on Medicines- Apothecary overload

Posted By on May 10, 2011

Some of my new aquisitions

Another Market Fair has passed, and lots of money has exchanged hands for goods.  My list of aquirements is fairly extensive, and I am happy to report that the majority was related to improving my surgeon’s impression.  However, this year seemed to be less about surgical tools (which was primarily because I’ve bought almost everything Godwin makes related to surgery), and more about  incidental supplies, and some apothecary items.




Look! Someone's making tooth powders from period recipes!

Deborah Peterson’s Pantry was in attendance as usual, and this year, I saw items that caught my eye to add to the apothecary collection that I am amassing- cochineal, hartshorn, salt petre, and gum arabic, which excited my mind to the area of medicines.

While the Apothecaries and Surgeons were primarily different people in different shops, there were cases of Apothecary-Surgeons in the colonies in the 18th Century.  This was mainly because there wasn’t a true market in many small towns and cities for multiple apothecaries and surgeons.  So in my impression of 18th Century health and wellness, I also have an extensive collection of bottles full of herbs and a copy of the 1737 “Poor Planters Physician” which I bring out to discuss.  The “Poor Planter’s Physician” was kind of a Ladies Home remedy book, which most families took with them into the wilderness to self diagnose and to grow herbs for curing the illness they diagnosed.

Many people were unable to afford an Apothecary, or were even close enough to a town to use their services, so in many cases, the family would raise a medicinal garden, and carry lancets with them for their own operations of bleeding to realign the humours. The book is very concise, which makes it easy to carry and in many cases, to memorize what herbs were used for what purpose.  Its been great, but, the rabbit hole beckoned again for more.

or Every Man His Own Doctor

See, short and sweet!

When I first started going through google books, looking for the ever elusive primary source documentation, I came across a 1747 Pharmacopoeia- a fairly extensive book of preparations, potions, salves and other items for alleviating symptoms and curing illness.  But in addition to the instructions for these various things, there’s a whole section on understanding why medicine works, and the different ways to prepare the medicines.  This section is almost like a chemistry book, in explaining how crystallization and other processes work, except that it really does show you that for the most part, medicine is a philosophy, not a true science.  The first four chapters of this part of the book are on the four elements and how they play into our health and how they play into the medicines.  It provides great insight for how they were deducing why certain medicines would  work for certain illnesses, but for those of us who have had modern chemistry, and have an understanding of modern medicine, it does make your head hurt at times.

For example- in the chapter on Fire, it basically states that fire is everywhere and no where at the same time, and yet while there are ways to identify fire, they aren’t really true ways to identify fire because other things can be identified in the same way.  Its fairly esoteric, and I found that I could only really read about 20 pages at a time in order to not have a major mental conflict with how wrong I felt these principles were. That also helped me to not be overwhelmed with the reality that this book was almost 1,000 pages to read and comprehend.

Why yes, I did print out the whole book. Its huge!

So in purchasing the new ingredients, I needed to refer back to this manual for some receipts that included them. Fortunately, googlebooks also has a search function for within the books it has in its collection, which made it quick and easy for me to find these.  For New Market Days this past Saturday, I ended up writing them out in quill and ink, but of course, its led me back to the massive book that is the pharmacopoeia.  In just doing a general search to test its functionality, I found 70 references for Mercury alone!  I want to try to understand some of these medicines more, to explain to people more of why they used what they used.  I like having an understanding of what they were thinking and how they were thinking of these issues of health, and I think that even though its going to be a feat and a half, the dispensary will be extremely beneficial for that.  Additionally, its great to be able to show people how Tums and other antacids came from a compound of Oyster Shells, gum arabic, nutmeg, chalk, and sugar.

Yes from this!





So don’t be surprised if one night you find me just curled up in a corner rocking slowly, because I can’t comprehend how we didn’t know that oxygen was important for survival, or how it got to the rest of the body from the lungs, or how fire is in ice!  Because I’m really just preparing for the one day I’m sucked into a time warp and become a character in a Diana Gabaldon novel.

Coming soon- making kids pass out, and experimentation with the new tooth powders!

(Special thanks to Tad Miller for my new syrup of roses jar, Laura Carpenter and Billy Myers for my new delft jar in which I put my hartshorn, Katie of Ageless Artifice for making tooth powders, and of course Deb Peterson for having her awesome sutlery of unique items for cookery, which I’ve bastardized into using for apothecary work.)

Under General Braddock’s Command at the Carlyle Residence

Posted By on April 18, 2011

(Bloggers note:  This entry will discuss the history of nursing, in its dark underbelly of beginnings.  For any nurses reading my entries, I highly respect how important you are today and am grateful for everything you do!)

While the majority of denizens of DC were staying up late to find out if they had jobs on Monday morning, I was prepping on Friday night the 8th of April preparing to be in the service of General Braddock at the lovely Carlyle House in Alexandria, Virginia.

I had been asked to play a nurse assistant to Charlotte Browne, who was the sister to the apothecary on Braddock’s Campaign to Fort Cumberland, and later, towards Fort Duquense. Charlotte was the matron of the hospital at Fort Cumberland, and later would become the first woman to be listed on the Military rolls and take a commission.  I chose a family name, Fannie, and took my herbs, my bloodletting implements, and a few other display items.  It was a much sparser layout than I’m used to, but it was a different role than I’m used to as well.  Dressing as a lady is not one of my regular 18th century activities, and I had figured that I would only use a small amount of the vast knowledge I have on 18th Century medicine.

Rakes Progress, Hogarth

A Potentially "accurate" depction of hospital life per Hogarth

Nursing in the 18th Century was considered the lowest of the low professions.  In the hospitals in London, most of the nurses were criminals or prostitutes, and instead of performing the actual duties of a nurse, they would take money from the patients to procure them liquor from the local pub, or to provide them that special comfort that a lady can offer a gentleman. Actual duties of the nursing staff would include changing bed linens, washing bed linens, feeding patients, cooking for patients, and occasionally changing bandages as ordered by the Matron, or head Nurse.  On the military campaign, the nurses were the wives of the soldiers who came with their husbands on campaign.  Ladies were expected to earn their keep by laundressing, or cooking, or nursing, and in some units, it was a rotation that every lady was expected to take their turn at.  However, having such a lurid history, it was not a duty the ladies enjoyed, and most did poorly at it.  Charlotte Browne actually describes this in her diary- the uselessness of her own assistant.

The other disadvantage to having the wives of soldiers as the nursing staff for any military campaign was that if their husband was wounded, the wife would then want to only dote upon their husband.  If he died, they would in many cases, leave the military unit behind to return to the city.  During Braddock’s Campaign in 1755, after the massacre at the Monongahela, many women left Fort Cumberland to go to attend to their husbands there, while many also left to return to civilization as well, leaving Charlotte to attend to many of the patients by herself, while seriously ill!

Having these bits of information within my head, as well as other facts about women with Braddock’s Army {Braddock ordered all the women checked for Venereal Disease (gonorrhea and syphilis) twice during the campaign (which was less than a year, mind you)}, I left my house early Saturday morning to head to Alexandria.

The Grandest Congress was a meeting held with several Colonial Governors, including Dinwiddie of Virginia and Sharpe of Maryland, with General Braddock, to discuss his campaign to oust the French from the area of what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Also in this discussion, they tried to make a decision on who would be paying for the campaign, as the King had decreed that the Colonies should try to fund some of it.  Braddock’s troops were also quartered in Alexandria as well at this time, and he would end up leaving 50 ill troops behind before continuing the march to Cumberland.  We had all of our governors, servants, Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle, Charlotte Brown, General Braddock, laundresses, kitchen hands, a town Doctor, myself as nurse, and several troops  in attendance.  I even had one patient to care for!

Mea as a chick

Why yes, I can wear a dress once in awhile, and look Fabulous!

There wasn’t a lot of visitors, but the visitors who did attend asked great questions and hung around for a fair amount of time.  They inquired upon my patient, and upon the herbs and such on my table, and my responsibilities, and asked questions about the menu for the patients I had laid out.

Thanks to another Doctor friend, I had a general menu for the hospital patients, and many people seemed to be really interested in the day to day meals of the men, and it just so happened they were in for a suprise.  The fabulous cook had made me some water gruel.

Now, what, you may ask, is water gruel?  Make some oatmeal, and then strain out all the oats, leaving just the pasty looking water.  Then, if you’re feeling particularly generous, add a pat of butter while its still hot.  It truly is quite the delectable treat!  Just look at my patient!

Yummy yummy!

I will admit to tasting it, and then begging General Braddock that if I should be taken ill, to not be served it.  Literally, Elmer’s Glue and butter.

But all was not lost, as the cook had made us an amazing meal consisting of fantastic potato soup, fish, meat pies, and seedcake.  We were even given tastes of some of the food that the Governor’s supped on as well, including a fantastically roasted chicken.

All in all, I found that I did end up pulling from my knowledge of surgery of the time, as well as my knowledge of the actual engagement that was about to follow a lot more than I had anticipated.  It was truly a great day, and I can’t wait to do it again next year!

Notes: Many thanks to Jane Pease for the pictures from the day and for being a Lovely Charlotte Brown, and to Kimberly Walters for the Water Gruel and for letting me know about this event.  And last but not least, a great Thank You to Dan McMahon for the “reviving victuals” for any patient that arrived at the hospital for treatment.

Planning for the season ahead

Posted By on February 17, 2011

So here we are, less than a month until my first event of the season. I have most of my schedule put together, a wishlist of things to purchase/make and personal goals that I would like to accomplish, from a reenactor standpoint this year. Yet, I haven’t made it to panic mode yet. Why, I haven’t pulled out the equipment and cleaned it, I haven’t bought new poles for the fly, nor have I done any of the painting that needs to be accomplished. I just started studying again! Oh wait, here comes the panic.

I think all reenactors share this excitement and dread that February and March seems to bring. The excitement that soon, you’ll be out in the tent, in the rain, singing with friends, enjoying every aspect of the hobby. The dread that soon, you’ll be out in the tent, in the rain, wondering where your spare pair of socks are, or why your gown is now soaked through and laying on your cot/bedding. The excitement that you can use what you’ve learned and done over the winter to interpret your position to the public. The dread that you squandered the winter away and all you have is one little project finished, with 100 new ideas for projects. The excitement of traveling everywhere to get away for the weekend. The dread of gas prices, and having to pack the car.

This is really like 1/3 of what I have lined up to read.

This is really like 1/3 of what I have lined up to read.

For me, the dread is always there in some aspects. There’s always more to read, more to learn, more to experience. It seems that almost daily I find a new rabbit hole for my research to go down. Like Alice, I fall down these holes, and grow and shrink depending on what I find. Just writing about the leeches last week has opened a whole new hole to jump through to learn more about how and why the leeches were used, and the most effective procedures that are still in use today. Then it jumps to a reference to a book within a book I’m reading, which leads me to pulling a pdf copy of that book off of google, so that I can add it to the never ending pile of books to read. This all leads to changing interpretations, changing information, and adding equipment, or removing equipment asneeded.

Additionally, this year is the first year I’ll be doing 3 time periods- Jacobite, French and Indian, and American War of Independence. This also means I have to keep the different periods in line, and what information is relevant for which. Granted, the major fundamentals during these times did not change, but the devil is always in the details.

I suppose its something I thrive on- the continuing education of portraying a surgeon. Like my forefathers in the 18th century, I too, am constantly learning. They by experimentation, me learning about their experimentation. There’s always another stone to be upturned, another herb to learn about, another grand procedure and the information therein. My bibliography and my knowledge grow regularly, and I want to share all that with as many people as I can.

But I have to temper that enthusiasm with the knowledge that there are only so many weekends in a summer, and that I do have to take time for myself. Failure to do that and I burn out and never want to open a page again about this wonderful world. So I am trying to limit myself to 2 weekends a month. Whether or not I’ll hold to that remains to be seen, but its looking promising.

So here I sit tonight, putting together my schedule for my unit commander in Dumas, and thinking about all the things that I need to get done before March. My first event is scheduled for the weekend of March 11, and I do want to make sure I’m going to do my best. Additionally, the weekend after is Military Through the Ages, which I need to bone up more on my Jacobite herbals and my history. Not a light task, but one that I’m going to work on daily by trying to read 3 herbs a day, and look through a timeline of 1745, so that I’m a little more knowledgeable about what may have been available to me. I also want to start making another oil of cloves, as mine previously worked so well that it has absconded to another person with a toothache. Success for the 18th century apothecary!

Isn't this a hot Capital Set?

Seriously, it is a hot saw!

And so I continue rambling here. I’m trying to post a blog entry a week, and some may end up being more about what goes into reenacting the surgeons, apothecaries, matrons, etc, than procedures, tools, etc. But that may be for the best, because it would get boring just listening to me talk about how awesome my Capital Saw is. Though it is totally awesome.  Ok, I promise, next blog post will be about amputation.  Promise.