The Snake-Poo Doctor

Put a speck of excreta into a tablespoonful of water and take it three times a day.

An Egyptian cobra
Chris Dennis Rosenberg / Getty

In 1862, an Edinburgh-trained physician, John Hastings, published a slim volume about the treatment of tuberculosis and other diseases of the lungs. It advocates the use of substances that much of the profession would regard as unorthodox, as he acknowledges in his preface:

It has been suggested that the peculiar character of these agents may possibly prove a bar to their employment for medicinal purposes.

Hastings then anticipates another likely objection—that the “medicine” he recommends is difficult to get hold of. Fear not: He can recommend some suppliers.

It may be useful to add that these new agents may chiefly be procured from the Zoological Gardens of London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Paris, and other large towns. They may also be obtained from the dealers in reptiles, two of whom—Jamrach and Rice—reside in Ratcliffe-highway, whilst two or three others are to be found in Liverpool.

One might reasonably ask what sort of medicine can be purchased only at a zoo or pet shop. Hastings explains that he spent several years trying to find novel medicinal substances in nature, without success. Deciding that pharmacies were already “crowded with medicines derived from the vegetable and mineral world,” he resolved to investigate possible miracle cures in the animal kingdom.

It would be foreign to my purpose to detail here the various animals I put in requisition in the course of this investigation, or the animal products I examined during a prolonged inquiry. It is enough to state that I found in the excreta of reptiles agents of great medicinal value in numerous diseases where much help was needed.

Yes, Hastings’s miracle cure was reptile excrement. His book is titled An Inquiry Into the Medicinal Value of the Excreta of Reptiles. Which reptiles, you may be asking?

My earliest trials were made with the excreta of the boa constrictor, which I employed in the first instance dissolved simply in water. A gallon of water will not dissolve two grains, and yet, strange as the statement may appear, half a teaspoonful of this solution rubbed over the chest of a consumptive patient will give instantaneous relief to his breathing.

This post is adapted from Morris’s new book.

Not just the boa constrictor, either. Hastings provides a list of the species whose droppings he has investigated: nine types of snake (including African cobras, Australian vipers, and Indian river snakes), five varieties of lizard, and two tortoises. After his eureka moment, the intrepid physician was eager to introduce the new medicinal agents into clinical practice, and so he started to prescribe reptile excrement for his patients. Since his specialty was tuberculosis, most of the people who came to see Hastings would have been scared and desperate. In the 1860s, there was no cure for TB; although it was not universally fatal, around half of those who contracted the disease would die, most of them within two years.

Hastings includes a number of case reports. The first concerns “Mr. P.,” a 28-year-old musician who consulted him about a troublesome cough. Unexplained weight loss had eventually prompted the diagnosis of tuberculosis:

I prescribed the 200th part of a grain of the excreta of the monitor niloticus (warning lizard of the Nile) in a tablespoonful of water, to be taken three times a day, and directed an external application of the same solution to the diseased side. He was much better at the end of a week, and after a further week’s treatment I lost sight of him in consequence of his believing himself cured.

Another was “the Reverend Q.C.,” who sought treatment after he started to cough up blood, the classic presentation of tuberculosis. He was treated with two different types of lizard poo:

I applied to the walls of the left chest a lotion composed of the excreta of the boa constrictor of the strength of the 96th part of a grain to half an ounce of water. Under this treatment his amendment made rapid progress, until the month of May, when I prescribed for him a solution of the excreta of the monitor niloticus ... of the strength of the 200th part of a grain in two teaspoonfuls of water three times a day, and directed him to use the same mixture externally.

The clergyman’s symptoms improved dramatically, and a few weeks later, he was able to walk eight or 10 miles “with ease.” But my favorite case is that of “Miss E.,” described as a “public vocalist,” which contains this magnificent paragraph:

This case is interesting, from the fact that I gave her the excreta of every serpent I have yet examined, and they all, without exception, after a few days’ use, occasioned headache or sickness, with diarrhoea to such an extent that I was obliged to relinquish their use. From the excreta of the lizards she experienced no inconvenience. She is now taking the excreta of the [common chameleon] with great advantage, and is better than she has been at any one period during the last three years.

It’s all pretty ridiculous—a fact that the medical journals of the day did not fail to point out. An 1862 review in The British Medical Journal makes an excellent point about the nature of scientific evidence, suggesting that the “positive” results he recorded were nothing of the sort:

This doctor, unfortunately, gives his cases—his exempla to prove his thesis; and we must, indeed, announce them as such to be lamentable failures as supporters of his proposition. We verily believe, and we say it most conscientiously, that if Hastings had rubbed in one-two-hundredth of a grain of cheese-parings, and had administered one-two-hundredth of a grain of chaff, and had treated his patients in other respects the same as he doubtless treated them, he would have obtained equally satisfactory results.

If The British Medical Journal was uncomplimentary, The Lancet was positively scathing. Its reviewer pointed out that 20 years earlier, Hastings had published another book in which he claimed to be able to cure consumption—using a flammable hydrocarbon called naphtha. And 12 years after that, he had decided that the cure for consumption was “oxalic and fluoric acids” (both toxic in large doses); oh yes, and “the bisulphuret of carbon” (also toxic). Hastings had in fact discovered not one but five cures. The reviewer adds, with considerable sarcasm:

As regards that—to ordinary men—unmanageable malady, consumption, all our difficulties are now at an end. The public may fly to Hastings this time with the fullest confidence that the great specific is in his grasp at last.

But he saves the best till last:

What can the public be thinking about, we would ask, when it supports and patronizes such absurd doings? Will there still continue to be found persons ready to allow their sick friends to be washed with a lotion of serpents’ dung?

Hastings was so offended by this article that he attempted to sue the publisher of The Lancet for libel. The matter was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, who dismissed the case, ruling:

It might be that he had discovered a remedy, and, if so, truth would prevail in the end; but it was not to be wondered at that the matter was treated rather sarcastically when the public were told that phthisis could be cured by the dung of snakes.

Well said!

This post is adapted from Morris’s new book, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities From the History of Medicine.