Powder of sympathy

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Powder of sympathy was a form of sympathetic medicine, current in the 17th century in Europe, whereby a remedy was applied to the weapon that had caused a wound with the aim of healing the injury it had made. Weapon salve was a preparation, again applied to the weapon, but based on material from the wounded patient rather than on any remedy for the wound.


The method was first proposed by Rudolf Goclenius, Jr. and was later expanded upon by Sir Kenelm Digby. In 1658, Digby held a discourse on the sympathetic powder before the University of Montpellier.

The powder is said to have consisted of green vitriol, first dissolved in water and afterward recrystallized or calcined in the sun. The Duke of Buckingham testified that Digby had healed his secretary of a gangrenous wound by simply soaking the bloody bandage in a solution of the powder (possibly due to the oligodynamic effect). Digby claimed to have got the secret remedy from a Carmelite monk in Florence, and attributed its potency to the fact that the sun's rays extracted the spirits of the blood and the vitriol, while, at the same time, the heat of the wound caused the healing principle thus produced to be attracted to it by means of a current of air — a sort of wireless therapy.[1]

The powder was also applied to solve the longitude problem in the suggestion of an anonymous pamphlet of 1687 entitled "Curious Enquiries." The pamphlet theorised that a wounded dog could be put aboard a ship, with the animal's discarded bandage left in the trust of a timekeeper on shore, who would then dip the bandage into the powder at a predetermined time and cause the creature to yelp, thus giving the captain of the ship an accurate knowledge of the time.[2]

A weapon-salve (Latin unguentum armarium, Greek hoplocrisma) was a salve which was supposed to cure the wound, being applied to the weapon that made it. The salve consisted of the patient's blood and human fat, the wound itself being wrapped in wet lint. This doctrine was supported by Wilhelm Fabry, Robert Fludd, and Jan Baptist van Helmont, who attributed the cure to animal magnetism. The clergy held that the weapon cure was wrought by magic and the devil, and their view was set forth by William Foster in Hoplocrisma Spongus, or a Sponge to Wipe away the Weapon-Salve (1631).


  1. ^ Fielding H. Garrison (1921), History of Medicine (3rd ed.), W. B. Saunders, p. 288-289
  2. ^ http://www.theatra.de/repertorium/ed000184.pdf