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Viagra and the hard facts

The good bishop noted that sparrows were notoriously over-sexed

Two thousand years ago Pliny the Elder in his book Natural History told his readers that the leek was an aphrodisiac. No doubt the leek gained its reputation for the same rather obvious reason that bananas, too, were also claimed to possess such properties.

For those who were not partial to leeks, Pliny offered a range of alternatives: an extract from the turpentine tree; or garlic pounded with fresh coriander and taken in neat wine. The water of boiled wild asparagus would have a similar effect, as would ‘the Cyprian reed, called donax’, and clematis leaves eaten with vinegar. And if even they didn’t do the trick, then the upper part of the xiphium root steeped in wine, or plants such as cremnos agrios or ormenos agrios crushed with barley were suggested.

Animal parts might be even better. Snake meat was an obvious choice. And, with their natural association with libidinousness, so might the genitalia of goats and cockerels.

Pliny also noted the powers of a skink, a large lizard: “Its muzzle and feet, taken in white wine, are aphrodisiac, especially with the addition of satyrion and rocket seed ... One-drachma lozenge of the compound should be taken in drink.”

Pliny the Elder

Albertus Magnus, a thirteenth-century German bishop, suggested some interesting remedies for impotence in his work De Animalbus: “If a wolf’s penis is roasted in an oven, cut into small pieces, and a small portion of this is chewed, the consumer will experience an immediate urge for sexual intercourse.”

Sparrow meat and desire

The good bishop noted that sparrows were notoriously over-sexed and so inevitably concluded that “sparrow meat being hot and dry enkindles sexual desire and also induces constipation”. But beware of overdoing things: according to Albertus, starfish can be used to manufacture an aphrodisiac so powerful that it can lead to the ejaculation of blood!

All nonsense of course. What was needed was some real science. Some hope.

By the seventeenth-century in England, herbalist Nicholas Culpeper was recommending that a man who was a victim of black magic and was thus unable to give his wife ‘due benevolence,’ should urinate through her wedding ring. Culpeper does not mention what to do if the object of a gentleman’s affections was someone else’s wife.

A century later, in 1739, the Ladies Physical Directory was concerned about the damaging effects of fast living: not least the excessive consumption of alcohol. But not to worry: all such sufferers would benefit from the author’s very own ‘Prolifick Elixir’, a ‘Powerful Confect and the Stimulating Balm’ that guaranteed to ‘fortify the Nerves, increase the Animal Spirits, restore a juvenile Bloom’.
And there would be plenty of similar products available.

Dr Brodum’s nostrums

In the 1790s, Dr William Brodum, (born Issachar Cohen in Copenhagen) set up a business at 9 Albion Street, Blackfriars Road, London. From there, he launched his career as a medicine vendor, specialising in two products: ‘Doctor Brodum’s Botanical Syrup for the cure of scorbutic, leprous and scrofulous complaints’ and ‘Doctor Brodum’s Nervous Cordial’.

Dr Brodum marketed his Nervous Cordial and Botanical Syrup to “repair debility and make men ready for the married state”. On later analysis, Brodum’s Nervous Cordial was shown to consist of gentian, calumbo, and cardamom.

Others quacks soon followed: Dr Senate’s Steel Lozenges and Balm of Mecca, R&L Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum, Blake & Company’s Neurosian Extract, and de Roos’s concentrated Guttae Vitae. Another quack, Ebenezer Sibley, published testimonials from alleged consumers of his invigorating ‘Solar Tincture’. Yet another, Samuel Solomon, offered his ‘Cordial Balm of Gilead’ for ‘impotency or seminal weakness’.
Solomon’s ‘Cordial Balm of Gilead’ was a mixture of cardamom, brandy, and cantharides. It probably did little harm.

A French work of 1830 harmlessly recommended ginseng. In Britain, the gynaecologist William Acton prescribed strychnine and phosphoric acid, offering a choice of mixing them with either orange syrup or syrup of ginger. Later, both arsenic and cocaine were put forward as guaranteed cures for gentlemen’s bedroom deficiencies.

A controversial American doctor Frederick Hollick, meanwhile, condemned all supposed anti-impotence drugs as quackery, save one: he believed that only cannabis would genuinely restore lost potency. But more radical cures were soon on the way.

Scandalous chimp remedy

Serge Voronoff was an eminent Russian-born medic working at the Collège de France. In 1919, Voronoff scandalised many by transplanting the testes of chimpanzees into men. He asserted that “marked psychical and sexual excitation” typically resulted, followed by a resurgence of memory, energy and “genital functions.”

No one recorded what the chimps thought of the procedure. It was, of course, just another futile fad. Men would have to limp along for another eight decades before being offered the real deal.

On March 27, 1998, Viagra became the first oral medication to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to treat erectile dysfunction. And for the first time in medical history here was a pill that really worked. Viagra immediately became the fastest selling pharmaceutical product in history. The company’s sales of Viagra topped a billion dollars in 1999. Profit margins were allegedly 90 per cent. And Pfizer’s share price rose like ... well, exactly like the new product’s objective.

Recommended

OTC casebook: Thrush

OTC casebook: Topical analgesics




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