Lyn Bennett is an associate professor of English at Dalhousie University and most recently the author of Rhetoric, Medicine, and the Woman Writer, 1600-1700 (Cambridge UP, 2018). Her current research centers on Early Modern Maritime Recipes, an open-access database produced in collaboration with Edith Snook of the University of New Brunswick and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). She can be found on Twitter at @lyn3690.
The recently launched Early Modern Maritime Recipes(EMMR) is an open-access collection of recipes published or recorded in the eighteenth century in the region now known as Canada’s Maritime Provinces. The EMMR database includes upwards of 300 medical remedies, five of which describe treatments for cancer. In the eighteenth century, “cancer” (or canker) did not necessarily refer to the “malignant neoplastic disease” we think of today, but was more usually used to describe “any of various types of non-healing sore or ulcer” (OED). In his long entry “On the Cure of Ulcerated Legs,” for example, Halifax, Nova Scotia physician William James Almon includes “The cancerous ulcer” among the eight kinds that afflict legs. As well as acknowledging leg ulcers, Almon recorded two plant-based recipes for treating cancer. One features “narrow leaved dock root” and was copied from a newspaper clipping and transcribed into his notebook.
The instructions recommend boiling the dock root in soft water and treating the problem area initially with the decoction and then with a plaster application of the root bruised fine. Native to Europe but also found in North America, dock has been used medicinally since the Middle Ages, likely because of its naturally astringent properties. The second cancer treatment featured in Almon’s notebook appears to have been transcribed from the Boston Magazine and recommends a decoction of red oak bark ashes applied to a plaster and the reapplied between four and twelve times.
Rather than dock root or red oak bark, New Brunswick physician William Paine recommends a decoction known as Rob Phytolae, which he notes ”has been credibly reported, to have cured Cancers by applying it to the Part” affected. In Paine’s day, a rob referred to “A syrup made by the concentration of fruit juice” (OED). In this case, the syrup was decocted from the branches and berries of phytolacca, the plant commonly known as pokeweed was well known in England as well as North America. In 1800, for example, Hester Lynch Thrale observed in her diary that “Phytolacca or Pokeweed is a domestic Plant in Virginia and New York, grows in all their Plantations.” Thrale goes on to note that “The Juice squeez’d & set in a Pewter dish in ye Sun till thick, cures Cancers” (OED), while Paine instructs the user more specifically to “pour the expressd Juice into a broad shallow broad Dish, to the Depth of half an Inch, let it stand in the Sun, till the Moisture is evaporated, and the Mass reduced to a Rob or Extract.” Given that the pokeweed to which Thrale and Paine refer is native to North America, it seems clear that the understanding of its medicinal benefits migrated to but did not originate in England. According to agronomist and weed scientist Larry Mitich, “The Delaware Indians were likely the first to prescribe pokeweed in medicine, using it as a cardiac stimulant,” while “Tribes in Virginia used the plant as a poultice for cancer and as a cure for rheumatism” (888). Maritime settlers likely learned how to use the plant from first or second-hand Indigenous knowledge that is given no mention either in the colonial Maritimes or in England.
The final cancer treatment comes from the Nova Scotia Calender, or an Almanack of 1789. The remedy was also excerpted in the 1788 London publication The Monthly Review (p. 476), where it was attributed to Dr. Mosely’s Treatise on Tropical Diseases, and later made its way also into an 1828 American publication titled The New England Farrier, and Family Physician in a condensed version that does not include full instructions but does acknowledge that “Dr. Mosely says, the above method is infallible” (p. 135). Unlike those recorded by Almon and Paine, Mosely’s cure is decidedly not plant based: the method calls for a plaster sprinkled with “a scruple of corrosive sublimate of mercury” followed by a poultice of bread, milk, and olive oil that “must be renewed frequently.” Afterwards, the wound is to be “dressed, digested, and cured as a common ulcer.” Though the instructions end by noting that “Bark is sometimes necessary to forward the digestion and cure,” the author doesn’t specify what kind of bark in a comment that seems more of an afterthought than integral to the remedy.
The article goes on to describe a successful treatment for gout using Antiscorbutic Drops that also appeared in the 1788 London edition of chemist Francis Spilsbury’s Free Observations on the Scurvy, Gout, Diet, and Remedy (p. 22). Both items promote the use of chemical remedies, and the cancer treatment with which the entry begins is noteworthy for its use of the extremely toxic mercury chloride, a chemical compound that stands in notable contrast to the dock root and pokeweed root recommended by physicians Almon and Paine. The EMMR cancer remedies can thus be seen to replicate some of the tensions and contradictions of an eighteenth-century medical milieu in which the knowledge of English physicians was so often pitted over-against that of chemical and domestic healers. In this and other ways, the cancer remedies suggest that recipes are much more than the sum of their parts. In this case, the EMMR collection bears witness to the ongoing struggle of chemical medicine against the authority of learned physicians like Almon and Paine, whose recorded treatments sometimes relied on the work of herbal healers – especially natives and women – but whose knowledge the physicians often also disdained. Taken together, the EMMR cancer remedies suggest a migration of knowledge that did not simply reiterate the “how-to,” but encompassed many of the tensions and contradictions that are the hallmarks of early modern English medicine.
Almon, William James. Manuscript Notebook of Dr. William James Almon. Nova Scotia Archives. MG 1 / Microfilm Reel 10,045.
Mitich, Larry W. “Common Pokeweed.” Weed Technology, vol. 8, no. 4, 1994, pp. 887-890.
Nova Scotia Calender, or an Almanack […] by Metonicus, 1789. Nova Scotia Archives. AK.AY.N85M
Paine, William. William Paine Papers. University of New Brunswick Loyalist Collection. MIC-Loyalist FC LFR.P3W5P3.
Richardson, Josiah. The New England farrier, and Family physician. Exeter: J. Richardson, 1828.
Spilsbury, Francis. Free Observations on the Scurvy, Gout, Diet, and Remedy. London, 1788.
The Monthly Review, Or Literary Journal, vol. 78. London, 1788.