Of Roses, Pine Trees, and Egg Yolks
I am oftentimes amazed at the resourcefulness of people in centuries past. We consider dealing with medical issues, in an age before antibiotics and surgery, as being especially problematic.
In fact, those people did not know any better. They worked and healed with what they had which was largely what nature provided.
In my upcoming release, The Brooch, my hero comes home from the war with a severely damaged and infected arm. Prior medical help, for army surgeons were not known for the skill, has not only offered no help, but it has actually worsened his condition. His return home brings him to Elizabeth Johns McQueen and her healing hands. She trained under her father, a physician in the British army, who was better than the average army surgeon/barber. Elizabeth's mother, in Nova Scotia, was a healer, and her mother-in-law, Colina McQueen, is renowned as a local midwife and healer.
So, Elizabeth falls back on what she knows best to help our hero - a concoction of pine spirits (turpentine in its raw form), egg yolk, and oil of roses.
Interestingly enough, this concoction had been around since Roman times, but for some reason, it had fallen out of favor by the 16th century. And then, in 1536, French physician Ambroise Pare found that soldiers with gunshots and/or amputations who were treated in what was considered a traditional manner at the time, with boiling elder oil and cauterization, suffered more pain and longer recoveries than those treated with turpentine, egg yolk, and oil of roses.
“You have lost your mind.” The anger rattled through Elizabeth’s veins, but she could give it no life. His arm was of first importance.
She sat back to the bench. She pulled the bowl of water toward her and reached for the rag. She picked and pulled at the wound.
The man winced. His muscles tightened. “My w-w-will."
She reached for an egg and cracked it into a bowl. “I will not write your will.” She added equal parts of rose oil, with its sweet fragrance, and pine gum spirits, which burned her nose.
A murderous glare leached from his eyes.
She stirred the mixture into some uneaten oatmeal from breakfast. She pulled a thick wad from the bowl and set it to the man's arm. Fresh beads of sweat pooled to his nose and lips. Was a fever coming?
She reached for the clean rag and placed an end atop his wrist. He stiffened and swore.
So, what is it about this mix that promotes healing?
Egg yolks are known for their ability to fight infections. The pine spirits (yes, from pine trees in its raw form), soften wounds, draw out pus, and heal. Oil of roses has long been known for its antiseptic properties.
But as we all know, sometimes medicine, modern or ancient, does not work. Wounds continue to fester. Infections deepen.
In our hero's case, he has a particularly nasty complication with his injury. Elizabeth must summon all her resources if she is to save our hero and his arm.
And as always, with heroes, more than a man's arm is at stake.