Boils And Carbuncles In History

Boils are not just a modern phenomena. Although many of the ancient remedies for boils and carbuncles would seem strange to us today, there is a scientific basis for some of these treatments.

Ancient Remedies

The ancient Egyptians used moldy bread to treat a variety of skin infections and eruptions. Although this seems strange, they were probably just using a form of penicillin, which actually comes from molds. The Chinese apparently used a form of mold from soya beans to treat boils and carbuncles. In Europe folk remedies included various types of moldy bread as well as moldy cheese applied to the skin to cure the boil.

The Black Death

In the Middle Ages getting boils, especially black ones, was terrifying, as it was usually a symptom of the plague. The plague arrived in Europe from Asia around 1347 and by 1352 had wiped out about a third of the continent's population. In the most common form of the plague, the bubonic plague, the lymph glands swelled up and appeared like black boils, because of bleeding under the skin. Caused by flea bites, the plague was normally fatal in 3 to 8 days for about 75% of victims. Even touching the bodies of the dead, or their effects, including their clothes, could cause people to become sick, probably because they were bitten by the remaining fleas. Victims were sealed in their houses, together with the other occupants and a mark, usually red, was painted on the door to warn people to stay away. Death carts toured the cities calling "bring out your dead" whereupon any remaining living members of the household would emerge after about a week and give over the bodies for burial. There are still plague pits where the dead were buried in mass graves in London and other European cities during the various epidemics. The last Great Plague in London was in 1665/6, while there were still plagues in other European cities until the early 1800's.

Boil Epidemic

During the 1840's and 50's there was a furunculoid epidemic on both sides of the Atlantic and it even reached South Africa. It was so severe that these boils and carbuncles even caused death in some cases. This might have been a mild form of the plague, although medical reports from the time don't make a connection.

19th Century Myths And Cures

During the 19th century there were various myths surrounding boils and carbuncles. One of these beliefs was that carbuncles were caused by eating meat from animals that died of pleuro-pneumonia. Anthrax in animals was also considered responsible for a contagious type of carbuncles or boil. People who worked with horses were also believed to be particularly susceptible to getting furunculoids.
Various cures and remedies were advertised in newspapers and magazines throughout the century. Some of the most popular with sufferers were sarsaparilla in various formulas, bee remedies, and a variety of pills and potions, salves, blood fortifying treatments, and so on.

Boils and carbuncles were believed to be caused by impurities in the blood so many remedies concentrated on removing these 'impurities'. Nowadays we know that boils are normally caused by the staph bacteria. However, the idea of impurities in the blood was not so wrong as some boils are caused by toxic conditions in the blood.

If you don't fancy taking a bee formula or sticking bits of moldy cheese on your boil, you might prefer looking at some of our more up-to-date remedies and advice for curing boils on this site.