The Fatal Fashion of the Georgians

GV1The other day, I walked through the makeup section of a department store. Every step of the way, I was bombarded by sales attendants trying to sell me the latest anti-aging potions. There was Rodial Snake Venom—an anti-wrinkle cream which allegedly simulates the paralysing effects of a viper bite to reduce expression lines in the face—as well as a host of other products including Freeze 24/7, which purports to be a “clinically proven dream cream.” Topping the list of quack remedies was the “Vampire Facelift,” a non-surgical procedure involving the reinjection of gel-like substance derived from the patient’s own blood.

With all these products on the market today, you might think that we are uniquely obsessed with finding eternal youth. Yet, people in the 18th century were equally concerned with turning back the hands of time, and their beauty regime could be just as futile (and toxic) as our own.

The proliferation of potions and elixirs reached epic proportions in Georgian England. Everything from anti-baldness creams to slimming pills were offered. Each one promised its own miracle cure. Each one offered the consumer hope in a jar (which, incidentally, is the name of a 21st-century product by Philosophy).

Quacks also peddled medical remedies targeted at those seeking a more permanent change.

GV2One of the most famous examples is Parr’s Life Pills—named after a man who reputedly lived to 152 in the 16th century. These “remarkable” pills purported to extend the consumer’s lifespan by decades; and contained a combination of aloe, rhubarb and jalap which were flavoured with liquorice powder, treacle and sugar. Parr’s Life Pills were so popular that they persisted well into the 19th century, where one cynic wrote:

I hearby certify and swear to it, that at the age of fifteen years I had the misfortune to fall into the crater of Vesuvius, and was burned to a cinder; but on taking two of Parr’s Life Pills, I completely recovered. At Waterloo I was blown to atoms by a Congreve rocket; but after taking one box and a half of the Pills I speedily got well, and with the exception of occasional shooting pains, which a single pill invariably relieves, I have since been a better man than ever.

In the grand scheme of things, Parr’s Life Pills were rather harmless, but one staple of the Georgian’s health and beauty regime most certainly was not: makeup.

Both Georgian women and men coveted rouges, lipsticks and powders that enhanced and lightened their complexions. Most of these cosmetics were homemade. Unfortunately, a majority of them also contained toxic substances that could prove fatal over time.

GV3For instance, many 18th-century rouges were made using the lead-base ingredient, carmine (see pot, left). The rouge was applied to the cheeks using wet bits of wool. The crimson cosmetic was also available as a lipstick, which was made by mixing carmine with plaster of Paris, a substance similar to mortar or cement. And let’s not forget the powders which gave wealthy Georgians that famous cakey-white look. These were sometimes made from finely flaked lead and most certainly caused serious medical problems—such as nausea, headaches, blindness or even death—for those who used them over long periods of time.

And then there was hair. I’ve talked extensively about the medical services offered by barber-surgeons. In 1745, however, the barbers split with the surgeons, who went on to form their own medical guild. Henceforth, the barbers were restricted to tasks relating to…well, barbering! Thus, the Georgian barbershop—with its noticeable absence of leeches, lancets and tooth extractors—is the most immediate (and recognisable) predecessor of the modern-day salon.

Georgian barbers began building their reputations as wigmakers after their split with the surgeons. Both men and women wore wigs in this period, the latter going to great lengths when it came to design and height of the hairpiece.

GC4Adrian Teal captures the growing extravagance of the era brilliantly in The Gin Lane Gazette. As the book progresses through the 18th century, the wigs grow higher and higher, till they are indeed taking up entire pages in this exquisitely illustrated romp through Georgian England (see right).

As beautiful as these creations were, they could also be toxic. Barbers often used lard at the base of the wig so that it would adhere better to the scalp. But the lard also attracted mice, which sometimes burrowed deep inside these elaborate hairpieces. Those who could afford to keep up with this extensive beauty regime frequently suffered from infestations of lice or fleas, as well as an array of scalp problems due the unhygienic conditions of the wigs.

Hardly a romantic view of the “Romantic Period!”

So next time you walk through a department store and feel tempted to purchase the latest anti-aging product, think of the Georgians with their potions, elixirs and wigs.

And remember: beauty always comes at a price.

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‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (Morbid Rendition!)

It’s nearly Christmas! Time to revisit this festive episode of Under The Knife. Using the talents of Adrian Teal (artwork), Joel Mishon (animator), and the vocal stylings of Alex Anstey, we give this classic poem a macabre twist.  So sit back, relax and enjoy my rendition of `Twas the Night Before Christmas as you’ve never heard it before!​ Featuring myself as the dissected criminal (Thanks, Adrian!).

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Not Just For Kissing: Medicinal Uses of Mistletoe (Past & Present)

Mistle Toe (1940)

Ah, December. That time of year when mistletoe springs up magically in entrance halls and doorways, driving unsuspecting individuals into an awkward embrace before they make a mad dash for the booze.

Today, we associate mistletoe with smooching; however, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the poisonous, parastic plant has a long association with medicine, and in the past would have been recognized by doctors as a vital ingredient in the treatment of various disorders.

One of the first records of mistletoe being used medicinally comes from Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) who used the plant to treat diseases of the spleen and complaints associated with menstruation. Celsus (25 BC – 50 AD) also describes using mistletoe in the fifth book of De Medicina. He mixed it with various organic or inorganic substances to create plasters and emollients, which he then used to treat abscesses, carcinoids, and scrofula. There is also evidence that Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD) used mistletoe to treat infertility and ulcers. Mind you, Pliny was also the man who thought you could cure incontinence by drinking wine mixed with the ash of an incinerated pig’s penis, touching linen or papyrus to your genitals, or urinating in your dog’s bed. [1]


When the preserved remains of the 2,000-year-old bog body known as Lindow Man (above) were recovered in 1984, scientists also found evidence of his last meal still preserved in his stomach. It included a grilled bran pancake that had burned while it was cooking, and a drink made from mistletoe.

M0008872 The oldest printed description and picture of the mistletoe.By the 15th and 16th centuries, mistletoe was being used in Europe to cure all kinds of ailments. The oldest printed description and picture of mistletoe dates from 1491 (right). It was described in herbal books from this period as “warming, softening, and an astringent.” It was used to treat afflictions of the kidney and spleen; and mixed with other plants to create poultices and plaster for ulcers and bone fractures. It was even used to alleviate labour pains in pregnant women. During the 17th century, British chemist Sir Robert Doyle suggested drinking pulverized mistletoe in black cherry juice during a full moon to cure epilepsy—a disease that was often associated with witchcraft and devilry because of its symptoms.

For hundreds of years, many Native American tribes had been brewing mistletoe into a liquid before immersing their heads in the tincture to alleviate headaches. The use of mistletoe—especially the kind gathered from oak trees—continued throughout the 19th century, especially in folk medicine in the United States. [2]

But what was it about mistletoe that might have appealed to healers in the past? Apparently, the plant can have an unusual effect on the circulatory system. It acts as a stimulant, increasing blood pressure and heartbeat (though both of these effects can wear off very suddenly, which can be dangerous). In this way, mistletoe was sometimes used to treat angina and heart ailments.

Mistletoe3Today, researchers in the medical community have once again turned their sights to mistletoe, this time in connection with cancer. Dozens of laboratories in the US have conducted experiments, yielding results that show an extract from the plant not only kills cancer cells in certain animals, but also boosts their immune systems, helping the body to fight off the disease naturally. These results, however, have not been proven to work reliably in humans to date, and more experiments are needed before we can understand what (if any) are the effects of mistletoe on cancer. [3]

In Europe (especially Germany), mistletoe is currently used for palliative care of cancer patients. Over the past several decades, trials have shown that the herb can help ease fatigue, nausea, and depression in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Interestingly, some studies also suggest that the plant can help diminish the toxicity of chemo drugs, which means patients can tolerate higher doses. [4]

So, next time you’re at a cocktail party and are taken unawares under the mistletoe by someone you’d rather not kiss in a lifetime of Decembers, distract him or her with the medical history of the plant, before making a quick exit. But don’t blame me if it doesn’t work.

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1. Pliny. Rockham H, trans. Natural History. 16.250-251. Vol 4. Loeb Classical Library ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1938-1963: p. 551.
2. K. S. Zanker and S. V. Kaveri (eds.) Mistletoe: From Mythology to Evidence-Based Medicine (Karger, 2015), pp. 3 – 5.
3. Brian Handwerk, “Medical Mistletoe: Can the Holiday Plant Really Fight Cancer?” Smithsonian (8 December 2014).
4. Ibid.

Hold The Butter! A Brief History of Gorging


’Tis the season for gorging! Mince pies, buttery rolls, homemade stuffing, turkey joints…all topped off with a dollop of cranberry sauce. In January, we’ll all heave a collective groan as we step onto the scales for the first time and face the consequences of our gluttony.

You may think that obesity is largely a symptom of the modern world, but the battle of the bulge has been raging for centuries.

2One of the most famous corpulent characters from the past was a man named Daniel Lambert [left]. Born on 13 March, 1770, Lambert was slim and athletic throughout most of his boyhood. Then, in 1791, he took over from his father as the Keeper of Leicester’s House of Correction on Highcross Street. It was at this point that young Lambert’s waistline began expanding at an extraordinary rate. Within two years, he had ballooned to 483 pounds; and by 1804, he weighed a whopping 686 pounds. A year later, the House of Correction closed, and Lambert found himself out of a job and unemployable due to his extraordinary size.

Sensitive about his weight, Lambert withdrew and became reclusive. His meagre pension, however, could not sustain the needs of a man whose enormous suits cost £20 (or £1,440 in today’s money!) Not wanting to become a sideshow freak, but unable to feed or clothe himself, Lambert did the only thing he could. In March, 1806, the Stamford Mercury reported: “Daniel Lambert is having a special carriage built to convey himself to London where he means to exhibit himself as a natural curiosity.” Once settled in the capital, Lambert began charging people for access to view him. Over the next 6 months, he became minor celebrity. All sorts of people visited him at his home, including King George III.

Eventually, Lambert returned to Leicester. He traveled the country periodically to raise money, although by then, he was a very rich man. In 1809, Lambert died shaving at the age of 39 while staying at the Wagon & Horses Inn in Stamford, during what he intended to be his final tour. At the time of his death, his waist measured an incredible 9’4’’ in circumference [picture of his breeches below], and his calf measured 3’1’’. Lambert weighed 739 pounds—approximately a third of the weight of a modern-day Mini Cooper. The wall of the inn had to be dismantled to remove his corpse. Lambert’s coffin—which was constructed from 156 square feet of wood—had to be supported on wheels, and it took 20 men to lower it down a ramp into the grave.


Medical interest in obesity has a long history. In the 17th century, several discoveries were made that helped doctors understand how the human body processed and stored food. In 1614, the Italian physician Santorio invented a movable platform attached to a steelyard scale [below] that allowed him to quantify changes in the bodyweight of his subjects. This allowed Santorio to measure metabolic rates in humans for the very first time.

_100Further contributions were made by Theophile Bonet, who became the first anatomist to dissect obese cadavers, and he documented his findings in 1679. His work was taken up in the following century by the Italian anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, who recorded the first case of hardened arteries in the corpse of an obese male. By 1727, the first monograph on obesity and the treatment of the condition appeared; and by the 19th century, there was a proliferation of literature on the subject, as people’s concern about obesity grew with their waistlines.

The Age of Dieting had begun.

Probably one of the most successful diets of the Victorian period (and beyond) was down to a man named William Banting, who self-published a booklet entitled Letter on Corpulence in 1863. In it, he proclaimed success with the first “low carb” diet, imposed upon him by his physician, a William Harvey of Soho Square. The regimen included eating four meals a day, each consisting of meat, greens, fruits, and dry wine. The emphasis was on avoiding sugar, starch, beer, milk and butter.

The pamphlet’s popularity was such that the question “Do you bant?” – alluding to Banting’s method – became commonplace, and eventually came to refer to dieting in general. Incredibly, Banting’s booklet remains in print today.

We may all need a copy come January!

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Slashing Throats for 170 Years: The “Real” Sweeney Todd


To most people, Sweeney Todd needs no introduction, thanks in part to Tim Burton’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, starring Johnny Depp as the throat-slashing barber of Fleet Street. In the movie, Todd dumps the bodies of his victims into the basement, where their bones are stripped of flesh and made into pies by his wicked accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, played in Burton’s film by Helena Bonham Carter. Those familiar with the movie know how the story ends. But what they may not know is that this tale is nearly 170 years old.

The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846 under the title String of Pearls in a “penny dreadful” (so named for the publication’s price as well as its macabre themes). The original version of the tale centers on the disappearance of a sailor named Lietutentant Thornhill, who comes to London bearing a string of pearls for a girl named Johanna Oakely, on behalf of her missing lover, Mark Ingestrie.

After visiting Todd’s barbershop on Fleet Street, Thornhill disappears, arousing suspicions amongst his friends that the barber may also have been involved in the disappearance of Ingestrie. Driven by a desperate desire to find her lover, Oakely disguises herself as a boy and goes to work for Todd after his former assistant, Tobias Ragg, is incarcerated in an insane asylum. Eventually, Todd’s grisly activities are revealed when Ingestrie, who has been kept prisoner beneath the cellars of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and forced to work as a cook, escapes through the lift used to deliver the pies to and from the kitchen. Todd, who is furious at Mrs. Lovett for allowing Ingestrie to escape, then poisons her, before he is apprehended and hanged for his crimes. Ingestrie and Oakely marry and live happily ever after.

But where did the idea for this twisted tale originate, and is there any truth to it?

Today, Todd is depicted as a barber in the modern sense. However, as a character, he would have been recognizable as a surgeon in Victorian London. Barber-surgeons—as they were known—provided a variety of medical services for their communities. Their services ranged from the mundane—picking lice from a person’s head, trimming or shaving beards, and cutting hair—to the more involved, such as extracting teeth, performing minor surgical procedures and, of course, bloodletting, which is the origin of the red and white barber pole (click here to read more).

The barber-surgeons and surgeons existed separately until 1540, when Henry VIII integrated the two through the establishment of the Barber-Surgeons Company. Although united, tensions between the two persisted until they eventually split in 1745. Even so, barbers continued to perform surgical tasks well into the 19th century—much to the annoyance of their counterparts, who were trying to disassociate themselves from hair-cutting and shaving by the Victorian period.

The 18th and 19th centuries were rife with rumours about the dubious activities of medical practitioners, and even cannibalism, many of which tall stories originated as ways of slandering one’s rivals. On 3 May 1718, The British Gazetteer reported:

We have Intelligence from Lincoln, that a man being hanged there [at] the last Assizes, within three days after his execution, a couple of apothecaries contracted with a butcher for a sum of money, to take the body out of the grave, and cut off all the flesh, fit for them to make a skeleton of; which flesh he sold for venison to an inn-keeper; who making it into a pasty, invited many of his neighbours to the eating of it; but sometime after the villainy being detected, the butcher and the two apothecaries were committed to Lincoln Gaol.

Fortunately, many of these stories have never been substantiated, and it is likely that most of them were contrived by other medical practitioners to undermine the reputations of their competitors.  Once out there, these rumours captured the imagination of the public, which continued to elaborate them into new and often more terrifying tales. Even Charles Dickens could not resist the idea of unsuspecting crowds consuming the fleshy meat of their fellow human beings on a visit to their local pie shop. In 1844, he published Martin Chuzzlewit, in which a character named Tom Pinch expresses gratitude that his own “evil genius did not lead him into the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic [sic] pastry, who are represented in many country legends as doing a lively retail business in the metropolis.” [1]

Of course, not all tales about cannibalism were fictional, nor were all forms of cannibalism rejected as socially unacceptable in earlier periods. The New England Puritan minister and lay physician, Edward Taylor (c.1658–1702), wrote that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness [epilepsy].” [2] In Denmark, the use of human blood as a cure for epilepsy was widespread: often, the sick and infirm would gather under the scaffold hoping to catch the spilt blood of a freshly executed criminal. English physicians, too, believed in the curative potency of human blood, and recommended this “cure” to their patients as late as 1747.  Other body parts–such as human flesh, fat and/or bone–were also used to cure patients of various ailments during this period. These parts were typically ground down to a fine powder and drunk or applied to the skin topically. [3]

Despite its popularity, however, the practice of medicinal cannibalism declined during the latter half of the 18th century as public opinion turned against it.  By the time the macabre story of Sweeney Todd appeared in print, all forms of cannibalism were deemed socially unacceptable, making the tale of the demon barber even more compelling, albeit fictional.

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1. Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, ( Publishing, 2009), p. 372
2. Edward Taylor, ‘Dispensatory’, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale University Library, pp. 376-7.
3. For more on medicinal cannibalism, see Richard Sugg, ”’Good Physic but Bad Food”: Early Modern Attitudes towards Medicinal Cannibalism and its Suppliers’, Social History of Medicine, 19:2, pp. 225-40.