Paul Chamberlen (1635 – 1717)
Just to demonstrate that quackery in all its form wasn’t a nineteenth century phenomenon, the next practitioner of the art to come under our microscope was active in the late 17th and early 18th century. Step forward, Paul Chamberlen. The art of quackery is to spot an opportunity opened up by people’s fears and superstitions, create a miracle cure and advertise your remedy for all you are worth.
Chamberlen, born in the parish of St Anne’s in Blackfriars in London, came from a medical background – his grandfather, Paul, was a famous obstetrician and had founded an influential group of fellow practitioners in the capital. It was probably through his grandfather’s work that our Paul became painfully aware of the high level of infant mortality in London, particularly amongst the poor and illiterate classes. He also, presumably, saw at first hand the level of grief that the loss of a babe in arms generated. Naturally, parents would do anything to give their new-born child the best start in life and this was the opportunity that Chamberlen saw and seized upon.
In 1715 advertisements started to appear proclaiming the benefits of the Anodyne Necklace. The necklace was hung around the neck of a baby who was about to teethe and helped to make the process less stressful. At the time the widely held medical view was that the stress was caused by the growth of the child’s first set of teeth – so the necklace seemed to be just the job. Of course, the successful quack is even more ambitious in the claims as to the efficacy of his panacea. Use of the anodyne necklace, so ran the advertisements, was beneficial for women in labour.
What did the necklace contain? According to contemporary records the necklace contained the dried root of henbane, a herb which has a long association with witchcraft, featuring in many recipes for witches’ flying ointments. The fundamental problem with henbane is that all parts of the plant are highly toxic, the leaves being so toxic that the very smell of them can make some people giddy and cause stupor. The famous herbalist, Culpepper, warns against its use internally but recommends it as an ointment, oil or poultice for gout or toothache. Unfortunately, infants are not too fussy what they put in their mouths and a necklace of henbane around their neck is likely to be a temptation few could refuse.
Chamberlen wrote a Philosophical Essay, published in 1717, on the properties of the necklace wherein, according to commentators, “the virtues of his invention are detailed not without a certain speciousness of reasoning nor some show of learning”. Selling at five shillings, a week’s wage for many, it was a good earner and appealed to all classes.
Years after his death, according to contemporary records, all sorts of quack medicines were sold “up one pair of stairs at the sign of the Anodyne Necklace next to the Rose Tavern without Temple Bar”.
Whether Chamberlen “invented” the necklace or was the first to spot the opportunity presented by the necklace or whether his name was just used to endorse the product is not absolutely certain but he is so firmly associated with the necklace and quackery that the precise form of his involvement is almost irrelevant.
You can still buy Anodyne Necklaces today, although, I hope, they are minus the henbane!