Herbs for infected wounds

Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)March 4, 2005

I need some information for an historical novel I am writing, set in Ontario in 1885. No antibiotics in those days, no aspirin even for fever... and the child has an infected puncture wound from a rooster's spur with accompanying fever.

I know such herbs as sage, hyssop, lavender and thyme have antiseptic qualtities... but can anyone out there suggest a course of treatment? Perhaps cleansing with an herbal infusion followed by a poultice of some kind? That's likely what I would try in similar circumstances, but I know there are lots of you out there with more herbal expertise than I have and I am hoping you will share.

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I know they poured booze on it.... did they have sulfa powders back then? I know they had a bunch of snake oil sellers... they may have put coal tar on it!

    Bookmark   March 4, 2005 at 1:47PM
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bushpoet(z6 Bronx NY)

What a delightful question, Maggie J!

I think you're right about washing & then poulticing. And what medicine used would depend on which season the injury occurred in (could they grab something fresh from the garden, or are snow-bound & have to rely on what's in the pantry?).

If your characters are recent European immigrants they'd be familiar with these remedies:

A harsh, but effective method of disinfecting is to pour grain alcohol on the wound (hurts like hell & uses up good liquor, lol).

Fresh chickweed (stellaria), comfrey (symphytum) and English plantain (plantago) are old favorites for poulticing, as are thin slices of raw potatoes or whole cabbage leaves. For a deep wound during warm weather I'd use plantago; in winter, chickweed can often be found growing under snowcover.

Just off the top of my head, some herbal options that would have been abundant in North America during that period:

Pine needle tea or a decoction of the resin from pine bark make excellent antiseptic wound wash.

Willow bark (really the cambium layer, i.e., the inner bark) could be chewed for pain relief & fever reduction. It's bitterish though, so it would probably be better tolerated if simmered & fed as a sweetened tea to a child. That's the 'original' aspirin (rich in salicylates).

Check out the book A Modern Herbal by Mrs. Maude Grieves to get an idea of what herbal treatments were like in the early 1900s. It's availabe online.

Hope some of this is helpful & good luck with the book!


Here is a link that might be useful: A Modern Herbal

    Bookmark   March 4, 2005 at 2:15PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Good point about the alcohol, Heathen1... and about the snake oil sellers. I had thought of alcohol but was reluctant to use because of the pain involved... didn't want to put the little guy through more agony than necessary. I found a local historical reference lauding the merits of hop leaves infused in vinegar... also brutal!

What a wonderful resource, Bushpoet! I have bookmarked "A Modern Herbal" it for future reference. Good point about the time of year influencing the treatment. It is mid-September so most things would be still available but perhaps not at their best. Plantain sounds like a good possibility as does Slippery Elm. Garlic juice is also effective, the Herbal claims, but this is an English family and they likely would not use garlic.

Thanks for the good wishes for success of the book. BTW, I'm not quite sure what you meant by a "delightful" question... (Grin)

    Bookmark   March 4, 2005 at 3:24PM
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most likely, they leeched the wound.

Best bet check a historical society and see if they have any dr's records back in those times and see if they'll let you photocopy, or go and research through the dust jackets.

Theirs one in bowdoin maine, that owns the house of the first woman peditrician in maine. They might have what your looking for.

Maybe pbs has something for you as well. they did a couple of series, one during the colonial days. It was a plymouth type village and they had actors acting out the parts as well as living and seeing how things really worked. Then their was one set in the late 1800's in england. It was about a typical middle class family in london. Email them and see if they can give you some info. 1885 i doubt the medical profession was relying strictly on herbs.

You can also contact the american medical association and see if they can give you some info or leads to follow. If nothing else it may inspire new stories.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2005 at 6:34PM
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the people would have been quick to try to disinfect or do something about the wound no matter how painful or else it may have gone septic and the child died. A lot and I mean a lot of people died back then from many things that most antibiotics and vaccinations take care of now. Brutal pain yes vs death of a young child.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2005 at 6:36PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Thanks, everybody, for the good suggestions both for treatments and for sources of more information. What amazes me is the vast number of effective herbal cures that people used.

It is said that the medical profession of the day relied on "leeching, purging, bleeding and blistering" to effect cures. On the whole, I think I would have preferred to be treated by an "old wife" with lots of experience. Although the leeches might be useful in this case and I am sure the local doctor will try them. (Slight shudder)

    Bookmark   March 5, 2005 at 2:22PM
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It really depends they probably had poppys to make a tea from,willow bark,alcohol,salt,hot packs,tanic acid,honey,soaking maybe in some herbal mixture.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 3:13AM
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Yarrow would have helped stopped the bleeding. A comfrey poultice may have been added afterward to knit the wound together. Perhaps some calendula added in. For an herbal antibiotic perhaps thyme or sage tea. Feverfew might have been given if the fever lasted an unusually long time.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 8:50AM
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JMC1(z5 NH)

MaggieJ-Just checked my Grieve books...You'd have to know specifically which plant you needed because index is by plant name. There were some listed under Woundwort-one of which was golden rod- used back then in treatment of stones and ulcers. Here is a marsh woundwort(All-Heal) that sounds like it's great-grows in England! Stachys palustris-----JMC1

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 1:36PM
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Judy_B_ON(Ontario 5B)

May not be historically correct, but if you had some character in the novel use cheese or bread mold on the wound, it would introduce penicillin to the wound and stop the infection.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 8:59PM
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ltcollins1949(9a TX)

Without doubt, garlic is an herb that has been used for thousands of years for both culinary and medicinal purposes. And it was used in England.

Check out this website: Garlic which states the following:



This is probably the best known herb in the world for its medicinal and culinary uses. It is a member of the Lily family, one of its closest relatives being the onion.

The English name for Garlic originates back to Anglo-Saxon times, being derived from gar (a spear) and lac (a plant). This is a reference to the shape of the plant's leaves, which are long, flat and thin.

However, writings and uses of Garlic date back to the time of Pliny, in the first century. He states that Garlic and onion were called upon as gods by Egyptians undertaking oaths.

Garlic is mentioned in Old English writings from the tenth to the fifteenth centaury. Chaucer, for example, refers to Garlic as 'Poor Man's Treacle', meaning an elixir or 'cure-all'.

For many centuries now, Garlic has been used to fight various infections. Long before antibiotics were developed in 1928, Garlic was often used in the treatment of infections from bronchitis and tuberculosis to dysentery and typhoid as well as your general colds, flu, ear, nose & throat infections.

During World War I, Garlic was used to dress the wounds of soldiers, with fantastic results. It certainly saved many lives by stopping infections in the wounds turning to blood poisoning.

It is still not fully understood how Garlic achieves its antibiotic action, though its pungent, odorous volatile oil, allicin, is considered to be one of the main active constituents.

Other therapeutic constituents present in Garlic are, vitamins A, B, C and E; minerals such as Germanium (assists toxic metal elimination, restores pH - acid & alkaline balance - and is an immune enhancer); and Selenium (an essential nutrient, and antioxidant which enhances the body's own healing mechanisms).

I have already mentioned Garlic's antibiotic action; it has other benefits too. Here is a summary of these.

LUNGS & THROAT - Garlic can assist in: Coughs, colds and other infections of the lungs and throat
Reducing and expelling catarrh
Fevers (can induce sweating);
GENERAL - Garlic can assist in: Healing of wounds, boils, sores etc (applied externally and taken internally). Garlic can be valuable for infected wounds and used as a preventative against infection
Fungal infections, athlete's foot for example
Ear & Sinus infections;
DIGESTION - Garlic can: Expel intestinal parasites (worms)
Reduce blood sugar levels which can help in late-onset diabetes
Help with digestive infections, gastric upsets;
HEART & CIRCULATION - Garlic can: Lower blood cholesterol (fat)levels. This is important in the prevention of Heart Disease and problems such as obesity
Lower blood pressure. This is another important factor in the prevention of Heart Disease
Keep the blood thin. This can enhance blood circulation, help to prevent thrombosis and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Raw Clove: 1 clove 3 times daily - a vegetarian or gelatin capsule can be filled with the crushed clove for convenience.
Dried Powder: 400-1200mg daily, equivalent to 1-4 capsules daily.
Tincture: 2-4ml in water (about 40-80 drops). I should mention that Garlic in tincture form is particularly pungent!
Garlic Oil: taken orally: 2-5ml daily (about 40-100 drops); as ear drops for an ear infection: 2-4 drops in each ear at night; or as nasal drops for sinus infection: 2-4 drops in each nostril 1-2 times daily.

Or follow the instructions on any proprietary pack of Garlic product being used.

Many people who have taken a Garlic supplement everyday for years have told me that if they miss a day, they notice it.

Some products combine Garlic with other herbs. This can give added protection against infections or colds: sometimes a combination of herbs is more effective than a single herb. I think that you can't beat the real thing; take the fresh cloves for the benefit of both your health and your pocket!

There are no general contraindications for Garlic. However, some people may be sensitive to it, or find that for some reason it does not suit them.

For example, it may produce indigestion or loose bowels, so, if you are starting, take it with caution at first.

It is also suggested that a medical herbalist should be consulted for the use of Garlic supplements to children under 12 years.

Garlic has been used for thousands of years, not only as a culinary herb, but for its reputed medicinal benefits too.

It is valuable for assisting in: Coughs, colds and other infections of the lungs and throat
Reducing and expelling catarrh
Healing of wounds, boils, sores etc
Fungal infections
Ear & Sinus infections
Expelling intestinal parasites
Reducing blood sugar levels
Digestive infections, gastric upsets
Lowering blood cholesterol levels
Lowering blood pressure
Keeping the blood thin.
An incredibly versatile herb, safe to use and great in cooking - use it often.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2005 at 9:45PM
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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

These aren't 'herbal' as such but if your character has splinters in the wound then a bread poultice wrapped in flannel and applied frequently (every hour or so) would 'gather' the infection. Bacon fat was/is another 'drawing' remedy being bound on over the wound. And fresh cow manure.

Laudanum was a common remedy in those times, as was the use of mercury. (Do a check of what ships' doctors carried in their kit and you'll be glad we've kinder remedies now!)

    Bookmark   March 7, 2005 at 3:38PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

What a lot of great suggestions. Thank you all! I've been doing some follow-up research on those of the plants that grow in this area.

I read that yarrow not only is antiseptic but also analgesic and that the pounded roots especially were used for poultices. Anyone else heard of yarrow having painkilling qualities? I would think that would make it very popular. Also hear that yarrow tea is good for fever.

Aren't herbs fascinating?

    Bookmark   March 7, 2005 at 9:14PM
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marie_in_wa(8 (coastal))

I can't think of any others off the top of my head - however another suggestion to find what cures may have been used is to find books written by others who have done research, and take a look at their referances. That may point you in the right direction :)

    Bookmark   March 11, 2005 at 1:49PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Good idea... Thanks, Marie!

    Bookmark   March 12, 2005 at 10:59AM
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ltcollins1949(9a TX)

I picked up an excellent book at the Whole Foods store entitled The Herb Book--The Complete and Authoritative Guide to More than 500 Herbs by John Lust. It has lots of very good information about medicinal herbs.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2005 at 11:42AM
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Cayenne pepper tincture for immediate stopping of bleeding and a poltice of honey and clay.

I use raw honey and bentonite clay. Or you could add honey, and add a poltice of clay by wrapping the wound with a gauze covering and then add police and secure it in place.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2005 at 9:31AM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

I'm glad I posted on this topic... and thank you to everyone who took the time to reply. The very variety of treatments suggests to me that there was not one single accepted method either then or now. I think I was looking for the definitive answer - and of course, it doesn't exist.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2005 at 6:56PM
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I'm sorry, LOL

I guess I was speed reading again. Yikes!

    Bookmark   March 13, 2005 at 7:41PM
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mayura97(KL, Malaysia)

Hmm, *wink* *wink*, it's kind of scary seeing all the mideaval ways of treating wounds...

    Bookmark   March 14, 2005 at 6:08AM
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thorspippi(z9/s14 CA Sacramento)

Ya know, I never paid much attention to herbal remedies until I read the Earth Children series by Jean M Auel that I fell in love with (particularly Clan of the Cave Bear). I never double-checked, but I'm curious to know how accurate the author was... If anyone here has read it?

    Bookmark   March 14, 2005 at 6:23PM
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marie_in_wa(8 (coastal))

thorspippi, I too read those books, and they are what got me into herbalism as well :)

From what I've seen, many of the remedys used there do seem to be accurate, but I have not reaserched them all, and some of them can be downright dangerous even though they do do what they are supposed to do.

Hmmm perhaps that's what I should do the next time I'm bored - re-read the books, crossreferancing the remedys used in the books with my herbalism books....

    Bookmark   March 14, 2005 at 7:53PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

I too have read the "Earth's Children" series. The first one was terrific and they went downhill from there. I haven't managed to finish the last one. Sigh.

All the same, I do believe that Jean Auel is to be commended for the quality of her research. Yes, some of the remedies mentioned would be considered dangerous today, but they were also potent medicine.

My problem with these medicines with regard to the novel is not only what works, but what was used during the late 19th century. Thanks to the input of everyone here I think I have it pretty well nailed down now. Also found a terrific book right on my own shelf - The Farmer's New Guide - published in 1893 which has a section on medical matters, particularly home medicine and first aid. Lots of first rate agricultural material too.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2005 at 8:45PM
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I know that in England in the dark ages that "Herb robert" was used to stop bleeding...and in many places its considered a "weed"..which it is not.

So its likely it would have been widely available...if you knew what it was.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2005 at 7:14AM
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herbman(norflk england)

Hello may I suggest not comfrey for an infected wound, because it heals so quickly that the infection heals inide the wound thus may lead to blood piosoning. Alcohol and salt are excelant wound cleansers,(many sailors servived having the skin striped from there back by the lash the only treatment they recieved was buckets of salt water throne over them).Plantain yarrow aer good wound herbs

    Bookmark   March 16, 2005 at 5:54AM
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"It is said that the medical profession of the day relied on "leeching, purging, bleeding and blistering" to effect cures."
Not so in 1885 ... those were recognized to be ineffective by the 1820s or so. Medicine was actually systematically investigating remedies by then, using basic clinical studies, by the 1850s.

One old-time (circa 1860) remedy for infected puncture wounds is to soak the affected part in a hot, strong solution of epsom salts for an hour or so every few hours. You have to lance or open the wound, clean out the pus, then soak. Pack it with sugar or honey-soaked cloth to minimize infection.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2005 at 11:05PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Kevin - I know Herb Robert, but it is not common in Ontario.

Herbman - Good point about the comfrey. I think I'll go with the plantain and yarrow. And the leeches.

Lazygardens - Thanks for you reply. I have a lot of respect for your knowledge and always pay attention to your posts. I think here, however, that there is a time-lag between what the medical profession knew and what was actually practiced by horse-and-buggy doctors in the backwoods. Those practices show up in country doctors' journals well after 1860 and were still being advocated in the Farmer's New Guide published in 1893. Barbaric, wasn't it?

The Epsom Salt remedy is still in common use and is a good one, although given the location of the wound - upper shoulder near the neck - is not so easy to submerge as a hand or foot. Honey to fight infection is being discussed in the book.

Do you happen to have any sources I might be able to access online for more info about the medical profession at that time?

    Bookmark   March 18, 2005 at 11:17AM
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    Bookmark   March 18, 2005 at 10:15PM
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herbman(norflk england)

I looked in an American herbal I have and found American elder

    Bookmark   March 19, 2005 at 5:19AM
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heres a bit about leeches


    Bookmark   March 20, 2005 at 2:09AM
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They used magots extensively for disinfection of wounds back then. The magots would feed on the rotting and infected flesh only and would even help the wound to heal faster. My great, great grandfather was a surgeon to washingtons troops during the revolution, and though the recipe has been lost, he had a poultice of herbs that would instantly reduce the swelling and disinfect the bone and tissue around a compound fracture enough that he could replace the bone and set it within 15 minutes. He then used magots to dress.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 2:30AM
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Maggie -
Try the site below. He has PDFs of many old references, inclusing some that you might use of Indian herbal medicine.

Fenner's Complete Formulary and Handbook (1888) would be a good one, because it would have the old stuff and the new.

Here is a link that might be useful: Michael Moore's Herbal Pages

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 9:28PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Wow! When I first posted my question, I certainly did not expect such an enthusiastic response. Thank you to everyone who contributed. I've learned so much!

Note to Lazygardens: Special thanks for the link to such a comprehensive resource. So far I have had time only to glance at it, but I have bookmarked it and will peruse it more thoroughly over the next several days.

~ Maggie

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 10:35PM
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The first one I thought of was yarrow - readily available can be dried for use during winter. Infusion used for fever + it has been used as a wound herb for thousands of years.
Marshmallow root has also been used to treat gangrene as a poultice.
Someone also mentioned garlic - great stuff.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2008 at 1:22PM
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