‘To fetch out the fire’

In 1666 London, including the Royal College of Physicians, was devastated by fire. From September 2016 a new RCP exhibition explores the fire, its consequences and medical treatments for its effects.

Injuries from burns were common at this time, particularly in the home where timber-framed houses, open fires and candles proved a lethal combination. At least 20 major disasters in which more than 100 houses were destroyed occurred in English towns throughout the 17th century. Even in the royal palace at Whitehall fires broke out frequently; one night in 1662 a gale caused the palace to catch fire four times in a single night.

Naked flames were commonly used around the home: often put beneath shelves to shelter from draughts, clothes were hung next to open fire places, and candles were left burning next to the bed. It was essential, therefore, that households had remedies to hand for treating burns when the inevitable happened.


Against a Burne or Scald. First to fetch out the fire, apply the juice of the dung of a horse at grasse. Then to heale it, boyle the juice of Gill-goe-by-ground, called Ale hoofe in creane till it comes to an oile, and apply it till it bee whole.

 ‘Against a burne or scald’. Receipt book. Author unknown, 1644–1691


Against a burne or scald’. Receipt book. Author unknown, 1644–1691
Against a burne or scald’. Receipt book. Author unknown, 1644–1691

 

The first medical book devoted exclusively to the subject and treatment of burns was De combustionibus, published in 1607, by the Swiss-German surgeon Wilhelm Fabry (1560–1634). The book included a system for classifying burns into three degrees, with details of how to heal them. To treat the scars caused by burn injuries, first the hardness of the scar must be soothed and softened with the grease of bears, hen and capon, oil of lilies and egg yolks, or with an ointment made from:

  • hen’s grease 2 drachms
  • bear’s grease 2 drachms
  • dark oil of thyme 2 drachms
  • lily oil 2 drachms
  • egg yolks 2 drachms
  • myrrh oil 1 drachm
  • juice of earthworms 0.5 drachm
  • afterwards, apply a thin sliver of lead dipped in mercury.

Remarkably, the official Bills of Mortality record that in the year 1666, only 11 deaths in London were caused by people being ‘Burnt and Scalded’.  We will never know how many perished in the Great Fire, nor whether such remedies as those described above were used to treat those who survived.

The RCP’s exhibition, ‘To fetch out the fire’: reviving  London in 1666, opens 1 September 2016, marking 350 years since the Great Fire. Explore the fate of a city and its physicians as they battled plague and fire, suffered overwhelming loss and almost complete ruin, and emerged into new hope for the future.

Sarah Backhouse, exhibition coordinator

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Recipes for burns and scalds. Medical miscellany. Author unknown, c.1630–1640
Date

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