Historians today think past physicians took a ‘like cures like’ approach to using human remains in medicine. Image Credit: Unsplash/Katherine Hanlon

Not very long ago, a majority of Europeans were cannibals.

Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can find the word ‘heal’, and go with us on a disturbing journey of how European medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries involved using human remains as key ingredients.

The clues about human remains in medicine have long existed in plain sight. According to Australian author Louise Noble, who wrote the book, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, several pieces of literature – from English poet John Donne’s Love’s Alchemy to English bard Shakespeare’s Othello – refer to the word ‘mummy’. Noble, and other authors, followed the trail and made a surprising discovery – that many Europeans, including aristocrats, scientists and priests, regularly consumed ‘remedies’ that comprised human bones, blood and fat. The tinctures were supposed to help cure every possible ailment – from headaches to epilepsy.

Because human remains were in such demand, mummies were stolen from tombs in Egypt, and skulls were dubiously procured from Irish burial sites. Gravediggers made a lot of money robbing and selling body parts.

According to a May 2012 report in the Smithsonian Magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, US, the human skull was a common ingredient, often consumed in powdered form to ease ailments of the head. English doctor Thomas Willis, who did some pioneering work in brain science, also brewed a drink for apoplexy (the rupture of internal organs). His concoction was a mix of powdered human skull and chocolate.

Even the grayish-green lichen called usnea, which grows over buried skulls, became a prized ingredient, as physicians thought it helped cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy. In Germany, doctors found a use for human fat – they soaked bandages in it and applied it on wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was thought to be a cure for gout.

Historians today think past physicians took a ‘like cures like’ approach to using human remains in medicine. For instance, to cure diseases of the blood, you would likely be asked to drink fresh human blood, and for an aching head, you would be told you had to consume powdered skull.

Another reason could be because human remains were considered to contain the spirit of the body that passed, and so, held a great deal of power. Even Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci thought so. Noble shared a quote by him in her book: “We preserve our life with the death of others. In a dead thing insensate life remains which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.”

Thankfully, modern medicine has moved on from these ideas to ones based on fact and research. But that’s not to say doctors still don’t use medicine from the body – skin grafts, organ transplants, and blood transfusions are all ways people use one human body to heal another.

What do you think of this grim practice? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at