Lost Hospital Series — Dwale

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dwaleSurgery has come a long way since the Middle Ages. In the tenth century, surgery was only used in “life or death” situations. One particular reason was the lack of any meaningful anesthetic to offset the ever-present excruciating pain that came with the actual cutting a surgical procedure typically entailed.

Many potions designed to relieve pain or induce sleep during surgery were often just as deadly as the surgery itself. One such “anesthetic agent” administered to a patient before surgery mixed lettuce juice, gall from a castrated boar, briony, opium, henbane, hemlock juice and vinegar.  This was called “Dwale” (pronounced  dwaluh).

If the hemlock by itself did not cause death, the balance of the cocktail would usually induce a deep sleep, at which time the surgery would proceed. Surgery would stop, however, if the patient stopped breathing. Dwale, like some other ancient herbal potions, originated in regions of southern Europe, especially where the ingredients were indigenous. The following Dwale instructions come from an ancient manuscript found in the Cambridge University Library:

“How to make a drink that men call dwale to make a man sleep whilst men cut him: take three spoonfuls of the gall [bile] of a barrow swine [boar] for a man, and for a woman of a gilt [sow], three spoonfuls of hemlock juice, three spoonfuls of wild neep [bryony], three spoonfuls of lettuce, three spoonfuls of pape [opium], three spoonfuls of henbane, and three spoonfuls of eysyl [vinegar], and mix them all together and boil them a little and put them in a glass vessel well stopped and put thereof three spoonfuls into a potel of good wine and mix it well together. [¶] When it is needed, let him that shall be cut sit against a good fire and make him drink thereof until he fall asleep and then you may safely cut him, and when you have done your cure and will have him awake, take vinegar and salt and wash well his temples and his cheekbones and he shall awake immediately.”

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Posted: October 13, 2011

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