Friday 28 November 2014

Dr Maurice Gueret: Home remedy - a cure from the past

Home remedy - It was common in Ireland in years gone by for people to make and trade their own ointments, says Maurice Gueret

The local chemists did dispense ringworm cures in the 1940s and 1950s but there was a belief that it caused hair loss.
The local chemists did dispense ringworm cures in the 1940s and 1950s but there was a belief that it caused hair loss.

I have more medical malapropisms, or the funny things patients say, to bring to you today. I was writing last week about the words "chemo" and "chemotherapy", and the confusion they sow. Well, a lady tells me she was an inpatient in a hospital ward, and the woman in the bed next to her had a mobile phone, on which she would tell all her woes and ails to anyone who would listen.

She would regularly tell callers that she was in for chemo surgery, by which she meant keyhole, or laparoscopic, surgery, and that her underlying diagnosis was infested stones – they were, perhaps, causing infections. She also claimed to have had disposable stitches inserted (dissolvable), but that's an easy enough blooper to make. And a lady doctor has written to tell me of a lovely patient of hers who is worried about the recent crisis in high ranks of the Garda Siochana, and feels "there's a lot of things still to come out of the woodworm"!

Skin ailment

Speaking of worms, I was writing about the skin ailment, ringworm, a few weeks back. It was a condition taken much more seriously just two generations ago, before the arrival of antifungal creams. Michael writes to tell me that, in the depths of rural Ireland in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, many people had expertise in some area – it might be ailments of cattle, pigs or hens, castration of horses, delivering lambs or fixing clocks.

His own father's special skill was that he made a ringworm cure. He recalls, as a child in the 1950s, that many neighbours would call to the house for the cure. The exact ingredients remain a mystery, but some were powders purchased from the chemist, and these were mixed with lard to make a grey cream. Michael has no recollection of ashes being used as a cure, as we discussed recently, but he remembers his dad's cream being freshly made for everyone. No money ever changed hands. Favours or other folk's skills could be called in at a later stage. He tells me that ringworm was particularly common in farming areas, as many cattle had it and it was considered quite contagious. The local chemists did dispense ringworm cures in the 1940s and 1950s, but Michael tells me of a widespread belief that these killed all hair growth in the affected area and might leave bald patches on people's heads, faces and hands. His father's remedy did not have this side effect, hence his local popularity.

Donating body to science

I have written before about donating bodies to medical science after death, and the subject always arouses huge interest. I suppose, in a way, it's a practice that extends your physical usefulness after death, and, while it's not for everybody, there is a strong cohort of people out there who have decided to do it, or would like to find out more. Somebody asked me the other day to explain exactly what happens to a body that is donated "to science" and accepted. In brief, it is housed in the anatomy department of a medical school, which will usually cover the transport cost from the mortuary or place of death. Bodies are injected with a chemical, usually formalin, which preserves the corpse and prevents it from decaying, and the usual stay within a department would be of the order of two or three years.

 During that time, the body remains covered in storage or on a trolley, and its main purpose would be to teach dissection to doctors and dentists in training at the medical school. A group of students would be allocated to each cadaver, and they would learn and be taught the mysteries of human life and function from the gift. Other residents in anatomy departments include surgeons in training, who demonstrate the body parts to medical students. They also learn to improve their surgical techniques and knowledge on bodies in the department without risk to life. What happens to remains after dissection, research and teaching is decided by the donor and family in advance. They may be returned to family, or interred by the college in a medical school's plot.

I believe Dublin colleges have one in Glasnevin, but I have not seen it yet. Some universities maintain Books of Remembrance and hold interfaith services to remember donors. Anatomy Departments, some of which have been going for almost 400 years, are strong on respect for the dead. You need to speak with them in advance, as well as with your family, if this is something you are interested in doing. There are six Departments of Anatomy on the island that accept donations; three in Dublin (TCD, UCD, RCSI), UCC in Cork, NUI in Galway and Queen's in Belfast. Prospective donors should always write to the nearest one for further information.

Black ointment

A reader in Wexford has been in touch about a remedy that, perhaps, I'm too young to remember. She remembers it as Black Ointment, and tells me that it was a well-known "drawing cream for thorns" that became embedded under the skin. She tells me her father, who had "great leathery hands", was a huge fan of the Black Ointment, and it was made up for him specially by a chemist in Kildare town. Perhaps some ageing apothecary can enlighten me on this dark cure? I suspect that, like many drawing salves, the ingredients were many and variable, with a herb or two, such as comfrey, a spot of alcohol, and a sulphorous oily substance called ichthammol, which was the active ingredient of many skin remedies. Any memories, good or bad, of the black stuff are very welcome by letter to PO Box 5049, Dublin 6W, or email to mgueret@imd.ie

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