As we found in our recent episode, the medical origin story of the zombie seems to have originated in Haiti and associated Caribbean islands with practitioners of voodoo, a religious practice brought to the region by West African slaves, and has nothing to do with the flesh-eating, brains-seeking versions in popular culture.
Travelers from the Caribbean during the 19th and 20th centuries told tales about persons who were transformed into living dead servants by evilly dispositioned “bokor,” voodoo practitioners believed to have the capability of creating zombies with special brews or potions.
The zombie powders obtained from bokors seemed to always contain ground up puffer fish. This, in turn, contains tetrodotoxin, a substance within the pufferfish capable of causing full paralysis–including breathing–in high enough doses. It appears these powders were typically applied to the skin. Cases of persons claiming to have been declared dead only to be found on the streets years later with personality alterations have persisted into the 20th century.
This has led to the theory that use of zombie powder may have induced a level of paralysis that appeared to medical practitioners of the time as consistent with death. Persons may have even been buried for a short time until the tetrodotoxin wore off. If they weren’t buried, they also may not have been breathing adequately if the toxin dose paralyzed the muscles of breathing. These factors may have lead to near asphyxiation and the low oxygen environment of a grave may have contributed to varying degrees of anoxic brain injury, a phenomenon that might explain why some of those purported to be zombies, seemed to be acting off or at least without the mental faculties that their families may have expected.
This is all a far cry from the pop culture zombies we see in the media today.
Doctor with a mustache.
Much of the popular mythos of vampirism draws from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” a work written after he had done a deep dive on the European folklore of the time on the subject of vampires. Though medical conditions such as rabies, porphyria, and tuberculosis have been suggested as culprits in originating the myth of the vampire, a nutritional deficiency may have been to blame: pellagra.
Pellagra occurs when people don’t get enough vitamin B3 (aka niacin). This vitamin is used for many cellular functions. We don’t absorb it well from corn, which became the main food staple for the peasant’s diet in much of Europe in the 18th century as it was imported from America. Pellagra was first recognized as a disease in 1735 and suspected then to be due to nutritional cause.
Pellagra is described by the “four D’s”: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death. Dermatitis refers to skin inflammation and rash that can occur with exposure to sunlight with pellagra–easy to make that connection to vampires. Without niacin, neurons can degenerate leading to dementia and, curiously, a behavior called “pica”. Pica is the strong craving for non-food substances including dirt and ice and other unusual things. It’s been suggested that this may result in the apparent unusual cravings of the vampire. Severe pellagra can result in death.
Notably, the vampire cannon seems to leave out the diarrhea aspect of this disorder. That’s probably a good thing.
Journal Article: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/014107689709001114
Doctor with a mustache.
In 1785, an English physician, Dr. William Withering, published his account of experimentation with a collection of herbs he’d received from a witch. This stemmed from a patient he’d had who he was treating for “dropsy”, an old tyme term for edema or fluid under the skin, typically attributed to something we know today as congestive heart failure (CHF). Whether it is weakened by a heart attack, a viral infection, or many years of pumping against high blood pressure, a heart may start to pump inefficiently. Instead of moving blood around the body in a nice, orderly fashion, the blood backs up as it fails to move forward as well as it used to. This leads to the fluid part of the blood leaking out into areas like the legs (especially thanks to gravity) and the lungs, leading to the shortness of breath and fatigue that is associated with CHF.
So when the 18th century doctor had his patient show up appearing to be improved from a mysterious plant mixture given to him by a supposed witch, the doctor was curious and visited her. He was given a sample of foxglove and pursued testing of it for many years before publishing the account. He gave it to 160 of his own patients with various conditions and noted it seemed to improve the dropsy.
He described an active ingredient called digitalis that foxglove and many other plants contain. Today we know this medication as “digoxin” and it is still used to treat CHF in select cases. Digoxin affects the shifting of electrolytes into and out of heart cells with an overall effect of improving the pumping strength of the heart. This helps people move their blood through the kidneys and clear out all that edema. It’s a treatment but not a cure for CHF.
Mind you that digoxin can be dangerous in toxic doses. Starting with nausea, poor appetite, and vision problems, high doses can cause kidney issues, dangerous electrolyte levels, and cardiac arrest.
Nevertheless, Dr. Withering was keen to listen to the supposed witch in the woods who’d helped his patient and he ultimately helped legitimize–along with others–the use of this seemingly magical medicinal substance.
Doctor with a mustache.
Among the treatments that were recommended by witches (or those who may be accused of witchcraft in Europe dating back to the middle ages), one might find preparations of willow bark and/or leaves. The association between these parts of the willow tree and pain relief were made well beforehand–dating back to perhaps Mesopotamia, the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and Native Americans, to name a few.
Many cultures noted that this plant had seemingly magical properties. Within the leaves and bark of the willow plant (and some others), it contains a type of molecule called a salicylate. By itself, it can decrease inflammation and swelling, thereby aiding in pain relief and decreasing fever.
If you’re the type of person who likes to mix chemicals and do reactions, you might have been Felix Hoffman, a German chemist who is ultimately (though with some controversy) credited with combining salicylic acid with acetic acid while he was working at Bayer in 1897. This created acetylsalicylic acid which we know as Aspirin. In this more refined form, that willow derivative functions as a much better anti-swelling and anti-pain medication. It also happens to stop platelets–a portion of the blood that helps form clots–from clumping together. This led to its still continuing role as a cardiovascular medication. If clots aren’t bunching up in narrow arteries, one might expect fewer heart attacks or strokes to occur.
Here we have another modern medication with part of its roots in the apothecary cabinet of your friendly, neighborhood medieval witch. Much better than the leeches and purging agents your medieval doctor may have recommended since the willow bark actually worked, after all.
Doctor with a mustache.
Everyone may be familiar with the concept of witches flying about on a broomstick and whatnot. One association between witchcraft and gravity-averse ability came about with the idea of so-called “flying ointments.” These were unguents (new favorite word) or ointments that contained a mixture of different plant materials which had all sorts of interesting potential. There was not a uniform recipe. These ointments might contain varying amounts of plants such as mandrake, henbane, deadly nightshade, and the Socratic favorite, hemlock. Other substances might be mentioned in recipes, including things like opium.
One thing in common with the non-opium substances mentioned is that they all contain what are called “tropane alkaloids.” These alkaloids, whether ingested, inhaled, or, in the case of ointments, absorbed through the skin, could certainly make one think they were mid-flight if the doses were high enough. These substances affect the autonomic nervous system–the part of that system responsible for helping regulate the heart rate, pupil size, digestive system activity, increasing or decreasing blood flow to certain areas of the body, controlling one’s bladder, and even regulating the more interesting bodily functions such as sexual intercourse or vomiting.
Too many tropane alkaloids and one can find themselves with a racing heart rate, high body temperature, agitation, and, important to the “flying” bit, in a hallucinatory stupor. Death can result as well.
The ointments might be applied to certain areas of the skin or coated on a broomstick or similar wooden staff which could be held, allowing the alkaloids to cross the skin into the bloodstream.
Cool bit is that many modern medications derive from these alkaloids, including scopolamine (for motion sickness, dizziness), hyocyamine (for abdominal discomfort and diarrhea), and even atropine (speed up slow hearts, reverse certain nerve gas or pesticide toxicity, dilate eyes for the eye doctor).
Maybe it wasn’t magic, but it probably seemed close enough given the understanding of the natural world that the 12th-19th century peoples had.
Doctor with a mustache.