Friday, November 2, 2007

Mad Dog!

A remedy used to treat dog-bite victims on the streets of Manchester in the Victorian era has been rediscovered by historians.

The city streets were once teeming with stray dogs -- and one bite from a rabid animal could end in fatal illness. A number of homespun remedies were in widespread use throughout Britain before an effective vaccine was created by French scientist Louis Pasteur.

Science historians at the University of Manchester have now uncovered the recipe for one such treatment -- known as the Ormskirk Medicine after the town where it originated -- and believe it shows surprising sophistication.

Although the mixture of clay and aniseed would not treat the deadly virus, scientists found it would have been effective at fighting further infection.

Around a fifth of all rabies deaths during the nineteenth century were recorded in Lancashire.

"The active ingredients in the medicine were aniseed, which is a mild antiseptic, and a herb called horseheal, which is still used by vets today, as well as alum, which helps blood clot," says Dr. Emm Barnes of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.

The mixture would be mixed with vinegar, which is also an antiseptic, and soaked on bandages that would be applied to the skin.

"Pasteur's new treatment was controversial because it was only the second vaccine ever invented," Barnes notes. "People still used the Ormskirk Medicine for quite a few years afterwards until it became clear that the vaccine was preventing rabies."

Scientists at the centre, who found the medicine's recipe in the archives, provided demonstrations of the old-fashioned treatment during the Manchester Science Festival. They also showed what dog bites would have looked like with the help of a makeup artist.

The disease causes fatal brain damage to humans and animals. Pasteur and Emile Roux developed a vaccine in 1885 that helped eradicate the illness in the UK by the early twentieth century.

[Via The Manchester Evening News, 1 November 07]

Shown here: Mary Langley Bruce with Cupid, her Griffon Bruxellois. (Check out that hat ... apparently made from a whole swan.) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B2-620-8 [P&P].


Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys, Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain, 1830-2000 (Palgrave, 2007)

"William Hill and the Ormskirk Medicine," Medical History, July 1968, 12(3): 294–297.


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