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Herb Garret sounds like it should be a band leader (perhaps of a similar vintage to the chap pictured below). In fact, the Herb Garret acts as a kind of anteroom to the Old Operating Theatre, perched in the roof of the baroque St Thomas’ church in London’s Southwark. The Operating Theatre is probably the main visitor magnet, but there’s actually much more to linger over in the Herb Garret.
It is thought that the garret was used as an apothecary store, or possibly a place to dry herbs, but the evidence seems to be limited to a few withered old poppy heads found in the rafters. What the owners/managers of the museum appear to have done is to procure as many genuine medical artefacts as possible, as well as others of a dodgier heritage, and cram them into the space between the floorboards and ceiling. The result is a joyously eclectic mix of ‘medical’ paraphernalia that fascinates, amuses and horrifies – in equal proportions.
Some of this stuff is as far from modern medicine as you can imagine. Amongst other things, there is a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, which includes cures and treatments from the animal kingdom – such as deer horn, which is allegedly an aphrodisiac (I find drinking beer invariably makes the opposite sex look more attractive, if that’s any help). There are bunches of herbs, mortars and pestles, jars that once contained tinctures of this and that, a whiff of chloroform and ether, rats tails, a spoonful of sugar… (I might have made some of that up). In the middle of the floor is an old operating chair that looks as though it has escaped from Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory. There are cases of hideous-looking medical instruments, gleaming and, to those who have even just a little imagination, eye-watering. But my own damp eye was drawn to “A treatment for venereal disease”, called Snailwater – a recipe by Dr Richard Mead, physician at St Thomas’ Hospital 1703-1715.
“Take Garden Snails cleaned and bruised 6 Gallons.
Earthworms washed and bruised 3 Gallons.
Of common Wormwood, Ground-Ivy and Carduus
Each one pound and a half.
Penniroyal, Juniper-berries, Fennelseeds, Aniseeds,
Each half a Pound.
Cloves and cubebs bruised, each 3 ounces,
Spirit of Wine, and Springwater, each of 8 gallons:
Digest them together for the space of 24 Hours.
And then draw it off in a common Alembick.”
No one is suggesting for one minute that my reader has any need for this treatment; but the recipe might come in handy if you notice anyone nearby at risk of going off the rails. They’d certainly be more careful in future, wouldn’t they? Mind you, a cold bath when danger presents itself would undoubtedly be easier, and cheaper. Some of those ingredients look fairly expensive to me – the local witch tells me that the price of snails (and bat wings) has rocketed recently. And you’d need a very large saucepan – maybe a cauldron – there’s more than 25 gallons volume in this recipe. Perhaps Dr Mead intended to treat the entire Royal Navy of the time. He also doesn’t say how the treatment is administered; do you drink it – or rub it in?
Carduus – is a type of plant, probably a thistle;
Penniroyal – also a plant, a bit like mint, with various medicinal properties claimed for it. The oil is highly poisonous;
Cubeb – a plant from the Far East with alleged medicinal properties, including antiseptic. The recipe might refer to seeds;
Spirit of wine – distilled alcohol, probably brandy (8 gallons – good grief!!);
Alembic – a type of still.
You’ll just need to visit the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret for more ideas.