Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hard Medicine: Bezoars

Bezoars are curious objects that fall into a unique category of folklore known as folk-medicine. Though folk-medicine usually tends to be more magical than medicinal, they were widely used by both common folk and the rich in times past. Their alleged healing properties will typically be debunked by respected medical scientists though it is not uncommon for other scientists years later to discovery that such folk-remedies actually possessed some genuine medicinal effects. Such is the case with the bezoar.

Bezoars are sphere-shaped deposit of calcium found mainly in the stomachs of ruminant animals like goats and gazelles. The term bezoar comes from the Persian word pâdzahr, meaning 'counter-poison', as it was once widely believed that such intestinal obstructions possessed mystical powers capable of rendering poisons harmless and healing the sick. Historical documents indicate that bezoar stones were used as far back as the early 7th-Century. The oldest surviving Persian work on medicine, the Abu Mansur Muwaffak (Mid. 10th-Century) also mentions bezoars in a list of 'medicinal stones.'

Among those famous individuals who received treatment using a bezoar is King Edward IV of England (1442-1483) who survived the effects of a poisoned wound, due solely to a bezoar in his possession. Likewise, Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) had a bezoar set in gold with unicorn's horn [1] given to her by her spy and magician John Dee. [2] However, the magic of the bezoar was not limited solely to the rich. Common folk could obtain bezoars from apothecaries who would lend them out at extortionate rates.

In 1575, a surgeon by the name of Ambroise Paré decided to put the legend of the bezoar to the test. Paré's cook had been caught stealing fine silverware. In his shame, the cook agreed to be poisoned. Pare then used a bezoar stone to treat the poisoned cook who did not recover and died in agony several days later. For Paré, such an experiment was proof enough that the bezoar stone could not cure all poisons as was commonly believed at the time.

Another type of bezoar was the Trichinobezoar, which is made of hair – basically a huge hairball – and results in human individuals suffering from what is known as the Rapunzel Syndrome: the compulsive eating of one's own hair. Unlike the calcium bezoar, modern science has actually shown that the much more disgusting trichinobezoar could have been used successfully to remove arsenic from poisoned drinks during the middle ages, which is how it was most often used. Over time, bezoars faded out of use as more reliable forms of medical treatment came into existence. Today, the bezoar remains an interesting item in folklore and fantasy and references to them can be found in the works of Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and most notably J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter).

At Top: A medieval physician treating patient with a bezoar stone (date unknown)

Center: Most bezoars are found in the stomachs of ruminant animals like goats and gazelles, this one, however, was found in the belly of an elephant.

[1] Most likely the tusk of a narwhal.
[2] John Dee (1527-1608) is sometimes called Queen Elizabeth I's Merlin. He was a Welsh mathematician, scientist and occultist. He also practiced alchemy, divination and prescribed to Hermetic philosophy. He also worked as a spy for the crown going by the alias 007 -- a title made famous by Ian Fleming's fictional British spy James Bond.


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Elizabeth K. said...

Hello Justin-
Very interesting post. Might you be able to tell me where you found the woodcut (top illustration) you used?

Justin M... said...

Elizabeth K.-

When it comes to obtaining images for my blog posts 99% of them come from Google Images. This usually has the advantage of leading me to some pretty cool websites that I can use again later on down the road.

The woodcut I used in this article was found on if my memory is correct. I saved it to my computer but didn't post it until almost a year or so later.

I checked my link to and discovered that not only was it not working but that the article I used is apparently not there anymore along with the picture. Such is the problem with using the internet as a resource and why I still like books so much.

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