Treatments for Hoarseness since the Early Modern World

Syrups and electuaries were popular remedies for throat complaints from the 17th century onwards.

By Julia Nurse
Collections Researcher
Wellcome Library

Here are some herbal remedies from the past for sore throats. It seems that many plants offered some form of relief for a sore throat– once the curative ingredient had been extracted, distilled, emulsified, dissolved with wine and sugar and then gargled or sucked.

An early recipe for hoarseness can be found in John and Joan Gibson’s handwritten Booke of Medicines complied between 1632 and 1717. Their recipe for “a coalde or hoarse cough” combines both botanical and possibly mystical ingredients:

conserve of redd roases 6 drams, powder of mastick 12 graynes, mithridate halfe a drame, Oyle of sulphar 3 dropps. Make this into an electuarye & take about ye quantitye of a wallnutt att night last, & first in ye morning. Halfe an ownce of lozenges of diatragacanthum frigidum. Sleepe with a lozenge of this in your mouth.

“Electuarye” is a concoction of a medicinal ingredient mixed with honey or another sweet substance. In herbal medicine, the essence of some varieties of rose petals is still considered to help strengthen the immune system and help prevent colds. “Mastick” was a gelling agent from the mastic tree.

“Mithridate” was a semi-mystical remedy with as many as 65 ingredients, used largely as an antidote for poisoning and said to be created by Mithridates VI of Pontus in the first century BC. “Oyle of sulphar” had long been used in alchemy and in the case of hoarseness to refresh the lungs. “Tragacanthum” – chilled in this instance – was a natural gum extracted from the dried sap of several species of Middle Eastern legumes of the genus Astragalus and was used as a gumming agent in pharmaceutical preparations.

Syrups and electuaries were popular remedies for throat complaints from the 17th century onwards. In one 17th century recipe, “a most excellent electuary given to Lady Lisle by Dr Lower” was a mixture including conserve of red roses, balsam of sulphur, oil of vitriol, and syrup of coltsfoot.

Part of the engraved title page from Theatrum Botanicum by John Parkinson, 1640. Wellcome Images reference: L0000804. / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons

In 1646, John Parkinson published his Theatrum Botanicum, which lists a number of throat-easing remedies, some more familiar than others, for example mint:

the decoction, or the distilled water [of wild mint], helpeth a stinking breath, which proceedet from the corruption of the teeth.

Invaluable though this herbal was at the time of publication, the book disappeared from usage during the Victorian period. It was only in 1947, when Canon E E Raven described it as “the last of the true herbals”, that it came back to life. The herbal has recently been republished in 2014 as The Herbalist’s Bible.

By the 18th century electuaries were solidified with the use of gelling agents like mastic and tragacanth into lozenge forms that could be sucked. The rose makes another appearance in a cure in John Wesley’s 1792 edition of Primitive Physick. Here it is mixed, unusually, with frankincense powder for “Violent Coughing from a sharp and thin Rheum”.

The perennially popular herbal the English Physician by Nicholas Culpeper was first published in 1652 and reprinted many times. A 19th century edition lists 14 botanical throat remedies. The New Family Herbal of 1863 by M Robinson was aimed at the botanical family physician. Robinson dismisses Culpeper’s ancient theory of “the government of herbs by the sun, moon and planets” along with his “laughable and ignorant descriptions of some herbs”.

Colour illustration of Dropwort from the New Family Herbal by M. Robinson, 1872. / Wellcome Collection, Creative Commons

Dropwort is just one of the curative plants mentioned in both texts. According to Culpeper, its effectiveness was guided by astrological influences, being most “serviceable” under “the dominion of Venus”. In comparison, Robinson describes it as “a capital expectorant” and hence beneficial in diseases of the lungs, shortness of breath, wheezing, hoarseness and coughs. Apparently, the herb was so-called “because it relieves those who may void urine by drops”.

Many of these botanical ingredients can be found in remedies for throat ailments today. Mint continues to freshen breath. Rose with its cooling and astringent properties is still used by herbalists to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Gum tragacanth also continues to appear in pharmaceutical preparations as a thickening agent.

Originally published by Wellcome Library, 09.05.2016, under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.