Popular with European royalty, human brain consumption emerged in the 17th century as a cure for mental disorders.
Similar to the concept of “similar cure as” found in homeopathic medicine, human brain consumption emerged in the 17th century as a cure for disorders of the mind. It was believed to have the potential to cure epilepsy in particular, it was believed that feasting on the human brains of the recently deceased works wonders on the brains of the living.
One such recipe for epilepsy treatment called “Essence of the Brain of Man”, written by John French in 1651, explained that doctors must “take the brain of a young man who died a violent death, along with the membranes, to arteries and veins, nerves … and bruises them in a stone mortar until they become some kind of dad. So put as much of the spirit of the wine as it will cover it …[then] digest it for six months in horse dung.
Horse dung aside, the consumption of the human brain to treat common ailments has existed in Europe for millennia. Started by the ancient Greeks, who consumed pills containing the brains of the dead, the tradition was then carried on for centuries by European royalty. One such royal was Christian IV of Denmark, who was king of Denmark and Norway in the early 17th century; Christian IV would have consumed the skull in powder to cure his own mental disorders.
Believed to possess particular healing abilities, the skulls were also shaved for consumption or used as a vessel for drinking alcohol in order to cure diseases. In particular, the jeweled and silver-studded skulls of St Theodulus and St Sebastian used as vessels for drinking wine were believed to cure fall attacks and fevers.
During the 17th and 19th centuries, skulls were also hung inside drugstores so that they grew “skull moss,” which was a soft greenish moss that grows on top of the skull when exposed to the elements for long periods of time. The chemists would then sell this skull moss to patients, who would fill their nose to stop the bleeding from the nose. The fact that rolled fabric could also accomplish the same purpose did not seem to be of particular importance at the time.
In the 17th century, King Charles II of England, who believed himself to be a full-fledged chemist, bought a recipe for the “spirit of the skull” from chemist Jonathan Goddard. Originally called “Goddard’s drops”, the recipe was believed to prepare a panacea when consumed by those who could afford it. After their purchase by Charles II, the elixir was instead called “drops of the king”.
The recipe for the king’s drops involved cooking pieces of a skull in a glass container for several months, obtaining a distilled liquid capable of curing all ailments, with specific benefits believed to be for the treatment of gout, heart failure, swelling and epilepsy.
In 1686, a patient named Anne Dormer received the king’s drops to cure her restlessness and generally mild temper. When mixed with chocolate, Anne found that the treatment was quite effective in altering her mood for the better. Unfortunately for Anne, the taste of the chocolate may have had more to do with this welcome change than the additional lingering flavor of the distilled skull.
However, Charles II, in order not to be dissuaded from his years of experimenting with the effectiveness of the king’s drops, requested that his own king’s drops be prepared for a special elixir that he consumed while lying on his deathbed, desperate for a cure. . Unfortunately for Charles, consuming his own skull wasn’t the panacea he had hoped it would be; shortly after he died.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.