“In case of hysterical suffocation, take dried otters’ kidneys…”

Last Thursday the John Rylands Library hosted a dinner on behalf of Cancer Research UK and the new Manchester Cancer Research Centre building. The Duke of Gloucester, Joint President of Cancer Research UK, was guest of honour, and Julianne Simpson and I mounted a display of medical-related books and manuscripts from our collections.

The earliest item on show was one of our Greek papyri, Greek papyrus 531, which contains a series of medical recipes from the third/second centuries BCE. In fact it is one of the earliest known prescriptions on papyrus. Among the more ‘hopeful’ cures are the following:

‘In case of hysterical suffocation, take dried otters’ kidneys, as much as can be held in three fingers, and serve in sweet-smelling wine. This is also helpful in the case of pains in the testicles and is an enema for the womb.’

‘If, together with choking, coughing supervenes, take equal quantities of red arsenic and unfired sulphur, also four of five almonds; cleanse them and mix well and then give (give to the patient) in sweet-smelling wine.’

Definitely a case of the cure being worse than the complaint. C.H. Roberts, who published the papyrus in 1938, believed that the recipes are Greek in origin, not Egyptian.

Rylands Greek Papyrus 531 (recto)

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