By Lyn Bennett
Pre-modern medical remedies included some of the familiar and much of the strange. Among the strangest – at least to our 21st-century sensibilities – is the “frog spawn water” specified in medical recipes well into the 19th century. Used also in its natural state, frog spawn was in 1687 recommended by Amsterdam physician Paul Barbette for treating cancer, and a “Cloth dipped in frogs sperma” was noted by eighteenth-century diarist Samuel Hartlib as useful in treating sundry wounds. Further recommended for topical application in the 1698 handbook, The Compleat Midwife’s Practice, frog spawn water combined with seeds of quince and plantain proved useful, claimed physician-author John Pechey, in a lotion used to treat “several hard Tubercles” on a woman’s neck (182). In the seventeenth century, frog spawn also found its way into Barbette’s astringent for treating wounds, Genevan physician Théodore Mayerne’s remedy for “paroxysme,” and court physician George Bate’s prescription for gonorrhea. In the eighteenth century, frog spawn was recommended for treating venereal disease in French professor John Astruc’s concocted remedy for genital lesions.
Frog spawn water also made its way into some popular household handbooks. The 1733 childcare guide The Art of Nursing, for instance, specified frog spawn and frog spawn water in recipes for a liniment and for a concocted medicinal water, while The Complete Family-Piece of 1741 recommended frog spawn as a remedy for the severe form of tonsillitis known as “Quincey.” Its virtues confirmed also by learned practitioners, frog spawn water was in 1712 specified by Royal Society fellow Robert Boyle in treating “Redness of the Eyes,” while pharmacist John George Hansel promoted in his 1730 Compendium Medicinale the “Water of Frog spawn with a little Alums” as astringently useful in numerous applications (110). That the London Physicians’ British Dispensatory of 1747 included instructions for producing aqua spermatic ranarum from alum and strained frog spawn suggests that the ingredient was widely perceived to have legitimate benefits in professional as well as domestic practice.
Yet frog spawn was not always thought helpful to human health. Barbette, who advocated for its direct application to injuries, also warned sternly against the drinking of “Pit or Ditch-water” out of concern that one might thereby “swallow Frog or Snake-spawn.” Indeed, “a Countrey-man” under Barbette’s care, he claims, “voided” no fewer than “two hundred fifty and five Frogs” sometime after consuming untreated frog spawn (qtd in Evans). Though it’s unclear why voiding large numbers of frogs was thought harmful, Barbette’s anecdote nevertheless cautions against the ingestion of frog spawn in circumstances that do not include its distillation into a proper medicinal simple for combining with other ingredients. Even when properly prepared, however, the value of frog spawn water was also subject to question. In his 1760 A Treasure of Useful Discoveries, Godfrey Boyle found it to be “only a phlegmatic, simple Water” and therefore “of no great Use in Medicine” (36).
Frog spawn water nevertheless made its way across the pond, where it appeared in at least one published remedy and a newspaper article. In 1791, the Nova Scotia Almanac included “frog’s-spawn water” as an ingredient combined with syrup of mulberries, “sugar of lead,” and plantain water to treat a sore throat. Nearly a century later, an article titled “Toads and Frogs as Curatives” appeared in the New York Times on 26 June and in The Globe on the 2 July 1887, its publication in two venues suggesting at least some North American interest in the medicinal use of frog spawn water, and even frogs themselves, in treating various afflictions. Focussing specifically on Ireland and Scotland, the article proposes that
. . . frog’s spawn placed in a stone jar and buried for three months till it turns to water has been found wonderfully efficacious in Donegal when well rubbed into a rheumatic limb. How much of the credit was due to the rubbing is not recorded. In Aberdeenshire a cure recommended for sore eyes is to lick the eyes of a live frog. The man who has thus been healed has henceforth the power of curing all sore eyes by merely licking them! (13; 10)
Frog spawn water may here be lauded as “wonderfully efficacious,” yet the metadiscursive “How much of the credit was due to the rubbing is not recorded” and the exclamation point at the passage’s end may also point to a growing – and perhaps uniquely North American – skepticism about the curative benefits of frogs and the products they produce.
It may be telling, then, that Dr. William James Almon of Halifax had already endorsed concerns akin to Barbette’s. A near-contemporary of English physician Godfrey Boyle, whose experiments questioned the value even of decocted frog spawn water, Almon was Halifax’s most popular and successful eighteenth-century physician and the owner of a substantial medical library. Like most physicians of his day, Almon complemented his medical texts with a handwritten collection of remedies and receipts in the form of a notebook that also included several clippings from other sources. Among those Almon preserved is the epistolary advice of one Samuel Brown, whose published letter, “Prophylaxis,” advocated the careful shunning of “pools and puddles of stagnant water” and countered popular belief also in recommending “frequent bathing in warm water of a middle temperature” (ca. 1797-98).
What Almon thought of frog spawn water specifically can only remain, for the moment at least, the subject of conjecture. Given his apparent interest in avoiding “pools and puddles of stagnant water” as a means of preventing illness, however, it seems likely that the Halifax physician wasn’t entirely confident about the medicinal value of ingredients produced in a muddy habitat or, at the very least, was as unconvinced as Barbette about the usefulness of frog spawn water when not ministered or mediated by a qualified physician. A princely hopeful among the familiar, frog spawn water may have never quite transcended the strange – or maybe it has?
Lyn Bennett is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University.
 Beginning 11 April 2019, Dr. Almon’s medical remedies will be available online through the Early Modern Maritime Recipes database. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), EMMR is dedicated to collecting and making publicly available a range of recipes from pre-eighteenth century New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.
Anon. The art of nursing: or, the method of bringing up young children according to the rules of physick, for the preservation of health, and prolonging life. 2nd Ed. London, 1733.
Anon. The complete family-piece: and, country gentleman, and farmer’s best guide. In three parts. … With a complete alphabetical index to each part. London, 1741.
Anon. “Toads and Frogs as Curatives.” New York Times, 26 June 1887, p. 13 / The Globe, 2 July 1887, p. 10
Almon, William James. The Manuscript Notebook of Dr. William James Almon. Nova Scotia Archives. MG 1. Microfilm Reel 10,045.
Astruc, John. A Treatise of Venereal Diseases. Vol. 2. London, 1754.
Barbette, Paul. Thesaurus Chirurgiae. 4th Ed. London, 1687.
Bate, George. Pharmacopoeia Batenana, or Bate’s Dispensatory. 2nd Ed. Trans. William Salmon. London, 1694.
Boyle, Godfrey. A Treasure of Useful Discoveries. Dublin: James Hunter, 1760.
Boyle, Robert. Medicinal experiments: or, a collection of choice and safe remedies for the most part simple, and easily prepar’d: very useful in families, and fitted for the service of country-people. London, 1712.
Brown, Samuel. “Prophylaxis, or Method of Preventing Infection.” Letter from Boston, 2 August. Newspaper clipping published in New York, ca. 1797-1800.
Evans, Jennifer. “255 Frogs.” www.earlymodernmedicine.com, 3 May 2014.
Hansel, John George. Compendium medicinale: or, a brief summary of the Original causes of most Diseases in Human Bodies, with their Symptoms and Method of Cure. London, 1730.
Mayerne, Théodore. Medicinal Councels. Trans. Tho. Sherly. London, 1677.
Nova Scotia Calendar or Almanac by Metonicus. Halifax, 1791. Nova Scotia Archives, AK.AY.N85M.
Pechey, John. The Compleat Midwife’s Practice Enlarged. London, 1698.
Royal College of Physicians of London. The British Dispensatory. London: Edward Cave, 1747.