King's College London
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

A physician's notebook

This manuscript notebook, compiled by an early 17th century physician or apothecary, demonstrates the practical use to which the information contained in a herbal was put.

Notebook pages showing manuscript notes on treating a hollow tooth or dental cariesNotebook pages showing manuscript notes on treating a hollow tooth or dental cariesMuch of it is a transcript of a medical textbook, An hospitall for the diseased, first published in 1579 and thought to be the work of Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603), but the anonymous transcriber, who was clearly a medical practitioner, has added his own notes and diagrams.

Their content, comprising herbal remedies for illnesses ranging from the common cold to bubonic plague, culinary recipes, folk magic, astrology and financial accounts, sums up the nature of medical practice in what was a largely pre-scientific society. Yet, amongst the mumbo-jumbo of charms and wildly ineffective cure-alls, we can discern precursors of treatments and herbal remedies still in use today.

The pages shown here include notes on treating a ‘hollow tooth’, or dental caries. The practitioner is advised to fill the cavity in the tooth with a piece of cotton or lead, soaked in oil of cloves, rosemary or sage. Metal tooth fillings are still common today, though no longer containing lead (an alloy of mercury, silver, tin and copper is widely used instead), and oil of cloves is commonly applied to a cavity to relieve toothache.

The clove, which is the aromatic flower bud of a tree native to the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, was, like many eastern spices, rare and highly prized in 17th century Europe. Oil of cloves was a costly ingredient, which explains why the compiler of this notebook recommended oils of the more easily obtainable native herbs, rosemary and sage, as alternatives.

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