Q: I once read that Cotton Mather wrote something like this: “As a cure for human ills, human excreta is a remedy that is hardly to be paralleled.” I took the “hardly to be paralleled” part to heart and sometimes use it with my wife. We find it droll. I have not been able to find this quotation now, though I do not think I hallucinated it. Can you help?
A: You didn’t hallucinate that passage from the Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who wrote extensively about medical subjects. You’ve had a hard time finding it because the original differs a bit from your memory of it.
The quote comes from The Angel of Bethesda, a medical treatise that was substantially finished in 1724 but not published in Mather’s lifetime. In a section on the use of human excrement in treating disease, he first discusses feces (one use is for treating eye problems!), then turns his attention to urine:
“And yett there is another Excrement of Humane Bodies that is hardly to be parallel’d! Medicinal Springs have been of great Esteem in the World, and much Resorted to. People expect Much from Going to the Waters. But, my Friend, thou hast one within thee, that Exceeds them all. The Uses and Vertues of Humane URINE, St. Barnaby’s Day were scarce Long Enough to enumerate them. The People, who take a Daily Draught of it, (Either their own or some young healthy persons,) have Hundreds of Thousands of them, found a Presærvative of Health (even to Old Age) hardly to be æqualled.”
The treatise was published for the first time in 1972, edited by the historian Gordon W. Jones, though excerpts had appeared in print earlier.
For a time as a young man, Mather studied medicine because a stammer seemed likely to prevent him from becoming a minster, according to the historian Vern Bullough, who reviewed The Angel of Bethesda in the fall 1973 issue of the journal Early American Literature.
In general Mather believed that sin was the cause of sickness, and sickness was the punishment of God. Although many of his ideas sound strange today, the recommended treatments reflected the medical thinking in early 18th-century Colonial America.
However, he was criticized by many doctors for his support of smallpox inoculation. He helped introduce variolation, a precursor of smallpox vaccination, to New England in 1721 and ’22.
He also differed with many doctors in his belief that germs spread disease, though he considered germs to be minuscule insects, tinier than the tiniest grains of sand, that propagated sickness with their eggs.
Thanks for a question that’s hardly to be paralleled. And in case you’re interested, Mather’s ophthalmological remedy involved drying poop, grinding it into powder, and then blowing it into the eye.