This Book Was the 'WebMD' of the 18th and 19th Centuries

By: Alia Hoyt
In the 1700s and 1800s, many U.S. and English households consulted a copy of "Domestic Medicine" to determine how to treat ailments at home. ilbusca/Getty Images

In the days before the widespread availability of pharmaceutical drugs, people used natural remedies, creating elixirs and teas made from plants, animals and minerals. But how would you know what to take for what? It was mostly folk wisdom until the appearance of "Domestic Medicine" by William Buchan, M.D., a British physician. This book was one of the first to make medical information available to the public, both in Britain and the U.S. It was the most popular health guide before the 20th century, going through 142 printings, from 1769 to 1871. (Buchan died in 1805).

"It was almost like the Dr. Spock of its day except it was not only for children," says Dr. Nathaniel Comfort, a professor of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.


Some of Buchan's advice sounds very modern. Here he is on breast-feeding: "The mother's milk, or that of a healthy nurse, is unquestionably the best food for an infant. Neither art nor nature can afford a proper substitute for it." He also supported inoculation against smallpox 20 years before Edward Jenner's publication introducing vaccination, and advocated good hygiene practices like handwashing.

Other advice was definitely for its times — Buchan recommended tailoring a patient's food and letting out his blood in order to balance his constitution, a process called humourism.

The book is also chock-full of recipes for simples, ingredients mixed together for various ailments. "If you count simples, an average 18th century household might out-therapy the medicine cabinet of the most illness-besotted patient today," notes historian Comfort. Oyster shells, plant roots, garlic, ginger, mercury, Epsom salts and steel filings are just a few of the simple ingredients Buchan suggested stocking medicine cabinet shelves with.

Here's some other medical advice taken from his book.

Cough and Pain Relief

"OPIATES are sometimes necessary to allay the violence of the cough. For this purpose a little of the syrup of popies, or five, six or seven drops of laudanum, according to the age of the patient, may be taken in a cup of hyssop or penny-royal tea, and repeated occasionally," wrote Buchan.

"In Buchan's day [opium was] something that any well-equipped household would have some of," Comfort says. "It was known to be a wonderful, effective pain reliever and terrific cough suppressant."

Today, however, we know opium to be wildly addictive and potentially deadly in all its forms, including poppy seeds, heroin and certain prescription drugs.


Mercury was used for centuries in a vain effort to cure syphilis. Although Buchan did not suggest it as a first resort, he did say that two mercury pills at night and one in the morning for several days would work, adding, "I have always found it one of the most safe and efficacious medicines when properly used."

Despite that assurance, many people died of poisoning from ingesting mercury. Those who didn't died of syphilis, which was a terrible way to go, too.

Now, thank goodness, we have a better alternative to mercury, in the form of penicillin. Instead, one injection of long-acting Benzathine penicillin G (2.4 million units administered intramuscularly) will do the trick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alternatives are available for those allergic to penicillin allergy. 

Swallowing Poison

A young child with measles from the frontispiece of "Domestic Medicine" by William Buchan.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In the case of mineral poisoning, such as from arsenic, Buchan wrote, "The patient should drink large quantities of new milk and sallad-oil till he vomits; or he may drink warm water mixed with oil." If that didn't work, the patient could take a small amount of ipecac. "Ipecac was standard until very recently. You were being an irresponsible parent if you didn't have ipecac in the house," says Comfort. This syrup was used for centuries to induce vomiting following ingestion of possible poisons.

In 2004, guidelines were changed to steer people away from ipecac, since research showed that the syrup didn't actually benefit people who'd been poisoned. Throwing up didn't keep people from getting sick from the poison. In fact, ipecac can cause major complications, because it can react badly with certain swallowed chemicals or medications.

The current advice is to call 911 if the person who swallowed the poison is having convulsions or trouble breathing. If the product swallowed is burning or caustic and the person is not having convulsions, he or she should take small amounts of water or milk. Otherwise, call the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) for expert help.

As with anything involving your health, it's essential to stay on top of emerging research and information from reputable sources. The advice here is not a substitute for medical counseling.