Pharmacy Fact: A Penny for Your Thoughts, A Nickel for Your Brain
Popular among European royalty, the consumption of human brain emerged in the 17th century as a cure to ailments of the mind.
Similar to the concept of “like cures like” found in homeopathic medicine, the consumption of human brain emerged in the 17th century as a cure to ailments of the mind. Thought to have the potential to cure epilepsy in particular, feasting on human brains of the recently deceased was believed to work wonders on the brains of the living.
One such recipe for the treatment of epilepsy called “Essence of Man’s Brains,” written by John French in 1651, explained that physicians must “take the brains of a young man that has died a violent death, together with the membranes, arteries, and veins, nerves…and bruise these in a stone mortar until they become a kind of pap. Then put as much of the spirit of wine as will cover it…[then] digest it half a year in horse dung.”
Horse dung aside, the consumption of human brain to cure common ailments had existed in Europe for millennia. First started by the ancient Greeks, who would consume pills containing the brains of dead men, the tradition was then carried on for centuries by European royalty. One such royal was Christian IV of Denmark, who was the king of Denmark and Norway during the early 17th century; Christian IV would consume powdered skull to treat his own mental ailments.
Believed to hold particular healing capacity, skulls were also shaved for consumption or used as a vessel for drinking alcohol in order to cure sickness. Specifically, the bejeweled and silver-encrusted skulls of St. Theodul and St. Sebastian used as drinking vessels for wine were believed to cure falling fits and fevers.
During the 17th through 19th centuries, skulls were also hung within chemists’ shops so that they would grow “skull moss,” which was a fluffy, greenish moss that grows on the top of the skull when exposed to the elements over extended periods of time. Chemists would then sell this skull moss to patients, who would stuff it up their nose to stop nosebleeds. The fact that wadded up tissue would also accomplish the same purpose did not seem to be of particular importance at the time.
In the 17th century, King Charles II of England, who fancied himself a chemist in his own right, bought a recipe for “spirit of skull” from the chemist Jonathan Goddard. Originally termed “Goddard’s drops,” the recipe was believed to brew a panacea when consumed by those who could afford it. Following their purchase by Charles II, the elixir became referred to instead as the “king’s drops.”
The recipe for the king’s drops called for cooking pieces of a skull in a glass container over several months, resulting in a distilled liquid that could cure all matter of ailments, with specific benefit believed for the treatment of gout, heart failure, swelling, and epilepsy.
In 1686, a patient named Anne Dormer was given the king’s drops to cure her restlessness and generally meek disposition. When mixed with chocolate, Anne found the treatment was rather effective in altering her mood for the better. Unfortunately for Anne, the taste of chocolate may have had more to do with this positive change than the additional lingering flavor of distilled skull.
However, Charles II—not to be dissuaded by his years of experimentation on the efficacy of king’s drops—requested his own king’s drops be made for a special elixir that he consumed as he lay on his deathbed, desperate for a cure. Unfortunately for Charles, the consumption of his own skull was not the panacea he had hoped it to be; shortly thereafter, he died.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.