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Borroughs Wellcome & Co., the American Medical Association and Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft: Popular Study of Anglo-Saxon Remedies in the Early Twentieth Century


Richard Scott Nokes, Troy State University (Troy, Alabama)

Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft, arguably one of the most interesting and far-sighted books about Anglo-Saxon remedies printed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was not, as one might expect, published by an academic press or in a scholarly journal aimed at medievalists or philologists or antiquarians. In fact, for the most part it escaped notice by medievalists entirely, in part because of the peculiar way in which it was published. Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft was published by Borroughs Wellcome & Co. and printed as the first section of a booklet of promotional materials for their products, then distributed as "Lecture Memoranda" at the American Medical Association meeting in Atlantic City in 1912. Very likely the only scholars aware of its existence were medical scholars. Given the scarce number of works on Anglo-Saxon medicine being produced at the time, there were few opportunities for the work to come to the attention of anyone into whose hands it did not immediately fall. The real aim of the booklet, in any case, was to entice physicians to read advertisements for various products of Borroughs Wellcome. By implicitly placing Borroughs Wellcome & Co. in an Anglo-Saxon medical tradition, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft offers an opposing voice to early twentieth-century scholarly contempt for Anglo-Saxon medicine, while simultaneously co-opting that history for commercial purposes.

Perhaps if it had been published in a different way, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft would have been seen as ahead of its time, but instead it was simply out of touch with the critical trends of the era. It was preceded by Felix Grendon's 1909 "Anglo-Saxon Charms," published in the Journal of American Folk-Lore, which organized some of the charms into various categories reflecting what Grendon felt were their defining characteristics. [1] Scholarship on the Anglo-Saxon charms in the first part of the twentieth century, however, was dominated by the figure of Charles Singer. Singer began publishing articles on the charms in the 1917 with "A Review of the Medical Literature of the Dark Ages with a New Text of About 1100," and was the most prolific writer on the charms in the 1920's. [2] The capstone of his career came much later, with the publication of Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine in 1954, co-written with J.H.G. Grattan. Singer held the Anglo-Saxons generally and the Old English charms particularly in contempt, and often used words like "primitive" and "disgusting" to describe the learning of the period.

Wellcome's work, therefore, entered into a scholarly context in which little work was being done on Anglo-Saxon medicine, and that work generally denigrated the Anglo-Saxons and their texts. J.F. Payne published English Medicine in Anglo-Saxon Times in 1904, but works like Payne's and Wellcome's did not define the scholarly zeitgeist the way Singer's did. [3] Interestingly, Payne's work also tried to take into account the historical and cultural differences between the early Middle Ages and early twentieth century, resulting in a far more generous account of Anglo-Saxon medicine, arguing that the Anglo-Saxons came to reasonable conclusions based upon what previous learning was available to them. Nevertheless, Singer's view of Anglo-Saxon medicine as a mishmash of primitive superstitions won out for a very long time.

Even if the scholarly tides had not been flowing in the opposite direction, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft probably would have escaped notice. AMA meetings are hardly the first place one looks for insightful writing on medieval culture, and to find such a thing in a thinly-disguised advertisement is surprising indeed. Nevertheless, the book is very attractive-looking, with a good number of color plates depicting somewhat fanciful manuscript images (see Plate 1). Although it lacks the normal apparatus of a work aimed at scholars, rarely citing the sources of its information and conclusions, much of Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft would pass muster among scholars today. The most interesting aspect of the text, however, is its implied thesis, which attempts to position Anglo-Saxon remedies as the forerunner of Borroughs Wellcome products.

Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft opens with two maps displaying this unbroken tradition. The first map is of Atlantic City, which would not be at all unusual for a conference booklet, except that the map is from 1872, a full forty years before the AMA meeting was held. A map of such age is hardly of any pragmatic use to conference participants, but rather evokes a time past. A map of contemporary Atlantic City, complete with hotels and conference location marked, is not included until the very last pages of the book. On the page following the 1872 map is a second map, this labeled "England, Scotland, and Wales in Anglo-Saxon Times from a drawing dated A.D. 1259," again an attempt to draw the reader back through time on an unbroken tradition: 1909, to 1872, to 1259, to Anglo-Saxon times. In the beginning of the text, Wellcome positions the origins of English medicine as following the decline of Roman power. Wellcome writes, "The Teutonic races, however, brought with them a self-acquired knowledge of the properties of worts, which they employed in the treatment of their sick. This empirical knowledge of herbs, which was in some cases intermixed with a certain amount of superstition in the form of charms and incantations, formed the basis of the medical art practiced by the Anglo-Saxons in England." [4] This depiction of Anglo-Saxon learning turns on its head the prejudices of the day; while others such as Singer tended to see Anglo-Saxon medicine as primarily superstition with a little trial-and-error thrown in, Wellcome sees the foundations as empirical, with a bit of superstition mixed in. This superstition was essentially wiped out with the rise of Christianity in England, both because it eliminated the "rude, fearsome worship of the forces of nature," as well as brought missionaries bearing "the knowledge of the more cultivated Greeks." [5] While today the depiction of the Greeks and Romans as high civilization among the low, barbaric Teutons seems hopelessly archaic, the description of herbal knowledge as "empiric," a word surely selected to evoke scientific legitimacy, grants far more to the northern Germanic peoples than most of Wellcome's contemporaries were willing to grant.

In Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft, however, this is not facile posturing designed to draw praise from fellow academics; this is a commercial enterprise designed to make money. The sections that follow are entitled "Leech and his Practice," "Medical Literature," "Medicinale Anglicum" (excerpts from Bald's Leechbook), "Herbarium" (excerpts from the Old English Herbarium), "The Medicina de Quadrupedibus," "Surgery," "Pharmacy and Herb-Lore," and "Methods of Healing by Charm and Incantation." Interestingly, no section is given over to the Lacnunga, the most superstitious-looking of all the Anglo-Saxon medical texts. Wellcome must have known of the Lacnunga, since his most likely source would have been Cockayne's Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, an exhaustive three-volume set that includes the Lacnunga. [6] Even in the unlikely situation that Wellcome were unfamiliar with Cockayne's work and went directly to the manuscripts themselves, he would have know of the Lacnunga since it is found in MS. Harley 585 along with the Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Whereas others were emphasizing the strange elements among the Anglo-Saxon texts, Wellcome is clearly de-emphasizing it.

The section of the book containing Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft ends with the following paragraph, which has the dual purpose of closing a treatise on Anglo-Saxon medicine and introducing the many Wellcome products for sale:

From a careful survey of the remnants of the medicinal literature that have come down to us from the time of King Alfred, one must conclude that the Anglo-Saxon leeches also had some training beyond simple experience, and that they believed in the efficacy of their native herbs, whose properties they so assiduously studied. Further, it may be said: to these early practitioners of medicine, who first made and recorded their observations of the effect of the remedies they employed on the human body, we owe much of our knowledge of vegetable drugs used in medical practice at the present day. [7]

Everything that follows this paragraph is advertisement, presumably some of the vegetable drugs referred to. At first, however, the reader is not treated to a catalogue of drugs and devices for sale; rather, two sections follow that indicate the Borroughs Wellcome and Co.'s continuing interest in historical medicine (see Plate 2). The first is a description of the Wellcome Materia Medica Farm, and the second is a section about "Historical Medical Equipments."

The section entitled "The 'Wellcome' Materia Medica Farm: A Modern Physic Garden," again tries to draw a link with the past, while simultaneously depicting Borroughs Wellcome & Co. products as cutting-edge technology. The opening paragraph reads:

Of "physic gardens," that founded at Chelsea, in 1673, was the official prototype. The picture of careful dames and frugal housewives, tending and culling herbs and simples, in "high walled gardens green and old" is brought to mind in reading of these old physic gardens which are associated with much quaint lore [….] Earlier than the Apothecaries' Garden of Simples at Chelsea, and differing from it chiefly in that it was the creation of a public body, were the gardens of private herbalists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [8]

In describing the garden, the booklet is unable to directly link the contemporary with the Anglo-Saxon; the furthest back it can go is into the early modern era. To some degree, however, this work has already been done by Chapter V of Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft, which described the Old English Herbarium. That section contains mostly only a sampling of remedies, and does not much discuss monastery gardens or traders in herbs from the Mediterranean region, yet we can still see the dim outlines of ancestry: from the Twentieth Century to 1673, to private gardens of the sixteenth century, to the herbal lore of the Anglo-Saxons, to the Teutonic, Greek and Roman origins.

Rather as merely a quaint image of a primitive past, these early days are depicted as the underpinning of Borroughs Wellcome's products, presumably making them more desirable. After describing these gardens of the past, a transition is made to the future: "The considerations that guided older pharmacists—acute and learned men—were chiefly those relating to the recognition of drugs [….] Standardization is now recognized as essential. In this, as in other departments of pharmacy, Borroughs Wellcome & Co. have been pioneers." [9] The technologies of the past were not primitive, but rather pioneering. Pharmacists of the past were not superstitious fools, but "acute and learned men." The drugs of Borroughs Wellcome & Co. are thus depicted as being the end result of centuries of empirical study and therefore, presumably, more reliable.

Despite its promising name, the following section on "Historical Medical Equipments" does not reach as far back into European history as Old English specialists might hope. The part devoted to Africa begins with ancient Egypt and jumps immediately to Stanley. No mention is made of the advanced medical technology of the Arabs during the Middle Ages, but we are reminded that they looted Stanley's medical chest. [10] For the most part, "Historical Medical Equipments" has far more to do with the use of portable equipment for exploration and warfare rather than the history of the technology. From a marketing perspective, this makes sense, since the following section advertises the various cases Borroughs Wellcome & Co. is selling. This is followed by page after page of other products, such as drugs, dressings, syringes and other devices.

When examined as a whole, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft is an unusual and fascinating book. At a time when many other leading scholars held the Anglo-Saxons in contemptuous disdain, Wellcome was in a distinct minority when he declared that the learning of the Anglo-Saxons was "empirical." Even today, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft has largely escaped the notice of scholars, being available in print (and without the Borroughs & Wellcome promotional materials) from Rose & Nefr, a publishing house better known for dance manuals. [11] While we are accustomed to the Anglo-Saxons being used for political purposes, the use of the Anglo-Saxons as a commercial marketing technique is a bit more unusual. As a work of scholarship, it is not without its problems: sources are rarely cited, the original Old English text is rarely provided, and some sections contain the decidedly racist overtones prevalent in the early Twentieth Century. Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft demonstrates how rather ordinary scholarship can be employed in an extraordinary text for commercial use.



[1] Felix Grendon, "Anglo-Saxon Charms," Journal of American Folklore 22 (1909): 105-237.

[2] Charles Singer, "A Review of Medical Literature of the Dark Ages with a New Text of About 1100," Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 10 (1917): 107-160. See also Charles Singer and J.H.G. Grattan, Early English Magic and Medicine (London, Oxford UP, 1920); Charles Singer, "The Herbal in Antiquity and Its Transmission to Late Ages, " Journal of Hellenic Studies 47 (1927): 1-52; Charles J. and Dorothea W. Singer, "Byrhtferth's Diagram," Bodleian Quarterly Record 2 (1920): 47-51; and Charles J. and Dorothea W. Singer, "An Unrecognized Anglo-Saxon Medical Text," Annals of Medical History 3 (1921): 136-49.

[3] Joseph F. Payne, English Medicine in Anglo-Saxon Times (Oxford: Clarendon, 1904).

[4] Henry S. Wellcome, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft: An Historical Sketch of Early English Medicine (London: Burroughs Wellcome & Co., 1912), 12. Emphasis mine.

[5] Wellcome, 12.

[6] T.O. Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest (3 vols. Rolls Series. Rpt. London, Holland Press, 1961).

[7] Wellcome, 100.

[8] Wellcome, 104.

[9] Wellcome, 105.

[10] Wellcome, 113.

[11] Henry S. Wellcome, Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft (Minnesota: Rose & Nefr Press, 1992).

Plate One: Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft, Chapter One.

Plate Two: Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft: The 'Physic Garden'.