Sir Isaac Newton’s Cure for the Plague: Powdered Toad Vomit Lozenges (1669)

Near­ly 300 years after his death, Isaac New­ton lives on as a byword for genius. As a poly­math whose domain encom­passed astron­o­my, physics, and math­e­mat­ics, he mas­tered and expand­ed the domain of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge avail­able to 17th-cen­tu­ry Europe. But if we remem­ber him as a one-man engine of the sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tion, we should also bear in mind his con­trast­ing intel­lec­tu­al frail­ties: New­ton was no finan­cial genius, as evi­denced by his loss of $3 mil­lion in the South Sea Bub­ble of 1720, and though his inquiries into alche­my may be fun to re-enact today, we won­der now why he did­n’t see them as a dead end even then. And then we have his for­ays into med­i­cine, one of which involves toad vom­it.

“Two unpub­lished pages of Newton’s notes on Jan Bap­tist van Helmont’s 1667 book on plague, De Peste, are to be auc­tioned online by Bonham’s this week,” report­ed The Guardian’s Ali­son Flood ear­li­er this month. “New­ton had been a stu­dent at Trin­i­ty Col­lege, Cam­bridge, when the uni­ver­si­ty closed as a pre­cau­tion against the bubon­ic plague, which killed 100,000 peo­ple in Lon­don in 1665 and 1666. When the poly­math returned to Cam­bridge in 1667, he began to study the work of Van Hel­mont,” a famous Bel­gian physi­cian. While some of the con­clu­sions New­ton drew from his study of Van Hel­mont’s work remain prac­ti­cal today — “places infect­ed with the plague are to be avoid­ed,” for instance — his sug­gest­ed cures may not hold up to scruti­ny.

In the “best” plague treat­ment observed by New­ton, “a toad sus­pend­ed by the legs in a chim­ney for three days, which at last vom­it­ed up earth with var­i­ous insects in it, on to a dish of yel­low wax, and short­ly after died. Com­bin­ing pow­dered toad with the excre­tions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affect­ed area drove away the con­ta­gion and drew out the poi­son.” Learn­ing how, exact­ly, New­ton found his way to such a pro­ce­dure will inspire enthu­si­as­tic col­lec­tors to bid on these papers, which remain on the Bon­ham’s online auc­tion block until June 10th. New­ton may, as we recent­ly not­ed here on Open Cul­ture, have had some of his most ground­break­ing ideas dur­ing the era of the plague, but even a mind as for­mi­da­ble as his by its very nature missed a few times, some­times wild­ly, for every hit. Yet as the world’s sci­en­tif­ic-indus­tri­al com­plex races to devel­op a vac­cine for COVID-19, we might con­sid­er what unortho­dox solu­tions have gone over­looked in our New­ton-less era.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac New­ton Con­ceived of His Most Ground­break­ing Ideas Dur­ing the Great Plague of 1665

Videos Recre­ate Isaac Newton’s Neat Alche­my Exper­i­ments: Watch Sil­ver Get Turned Into Gold

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Myth­i­cal ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Dig­i­tized & Put Online (Along with His Oth­er Alche­my Man­u­scripts)

How Isaac New­ton Lost $3 Mil­lion Dol­lars in the “South Sea Bub­ble” of 1720: Even Genius­es Can’t Pre­vail Against the Machi­na­tions of the Mar­kets

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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