Reflections on a Herbal Formula Attributed to Christopher Witt*
In October 2011, Joel Fry**, archivist at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia, sent an image to me from William Bartram's commonplace book, featuring an herbal formula attributed to Christopher Witt. (For background on Witt, see my earlier post on this blog, dated April 22, 2019.) Joel explained that the entry dates to the years 1771-1772, several years after Witt's death in 1765. The formula, copied out in Bartram's handwriting, is only seven lines long and was one among many entries in a book composed of stitched-together codices. The entry closes with the words, "D Witt Star Pills". The page is a tantalizing vestige, providing evidence of Christopher Witt's medical-herbal practice, and an enticing fragment of his Materia medica. As Joel Fry noted, "I suppose that recipe for the 'Star Pills' might be one of the few documents of Witt's medicines." Indeed! It's possibly the only such document known -- or extant!
The formula contains abbreviations that remain indecipherable, probably indicating quantities of ingredients used. The jpeg image of the Star Pill formula is reproduced here (the formula appears in the first full block at the top of the left-hand page); readers are encouraged to contribute information about deciphering or explaining the minutiae of the formula.
I've transcribed the ingredients of Witt's Star Pill formula as follows: "colicynth" (probably colocynthus citrullus); "gamb" (possibly gamboge, or garcinia hanbury); and "ol mentha", (possibly oleum menthae, or essential oil of mint). The fourth and final ingredient in this formula, written here as "Fenicis probably fennel, whose botanical name is foeniculum vulgare. Fennel is known to be soothing to the stomach, which as we shall see would conjunction with mint plays an important role, given that the active ingredients are harsh. The ingredients are first prepared in some way not specified by the formula, and then combined with three parts ("xxx") "syr" (possibly syrup), "enough to make the whole into a Mass for Pills". Witt's formula (as reproduced here by William Bartram) continues: "Divid [divide] it into 24 gr. pcs. each of which divide into 4 pills. Dose 3 Pills, lye 2 hours on the left side to prevent being sick. This most excellent, to purge off Water.".
Administration of the formula can thus be divided into six steps: 1. the initiation of the process (indicated here by the first word of the formula, "take"); 2. a list of ingredients and their proportions; 3. the mixing of ingredients and forming of the pills; 4. dosage ("dose 3 Pills"); 5. special instructions for the patient ("lye 2 hours on the left side"); 6. a clear recommendation as to the efficacy of the pills ("most excellent to purge off water"). Here's a closeup of the formula:
A historical note may be useful here. Bartram set down Witt's Star Pill formula in 1771 or 1772, about 30 years before Lewis and Clark embarked on their journey of exploration through what at that time were the far western territories of the United States. According to the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation website, along with other supplies, the expedition packed herbal medicines for various applications, including a formula that had been developed by Benjamin Rush, the preeminent Philadelphia physician of that era. Known famously as "Rush's Bilious Pills", the formula featured calomel and jalap, two highly efficient laxatives. These pills were nicknamed "Rush's Thunderbolts" for their powerful purgative effect on the body.
Possibly as a result of the persistent influence of Galen's theory of the four humors and their continuing influence on medical practice, bloodletting, and purging were employed and were possibly the most popular approaches among physicians for treating a variety of illnesses, throughout the 18th century. Barbara Griggs in her book, Green Pharmacy, quotes a French tourist on the medical practices of the time in North America:
"The practice of this country", observed a French tourist in 1788, is the English practice; that is, they are much in the use of violent remedies." A Boston doctor, questioned about local medical habits in the mid-eighteenth century, put it more bluntly: "the local practice," he said, "was very uniform, bleeding, vomiting, blistering, purging, anodyne, etc. if the illness continued there was repetendi, and finally murderandi."
Witt's formula was milder, though its purpose was largely the same, acting as a purgative within the largely Galenic medical/humoral tradition.
Let's now take a brief look at the formula's ingredients. Colocynth was well-known among herbalists at that time, and according to some sources was used in treating syphilis. But it was a dangerous product. Christopher Sauer's herbal, published in the 18th century – roughly the time Bartram compiled his Commonplace Book -- has an entry on colocynth: "Both the fruit and seeds of the colocynth possess a highly volatile, raw, irritant, bitter salt combined with oily, resinous substances. Therefore, colocynth not only purges the blood much too drastically but also, when taken even on occasion, its caustic poisons eat into the stomach and bowels, causing severe inflammation." (Quoted from William Woys Weaver's edition of Sauer's herbal, Sauer's Herbal Cures, p. 112). The plant, a member of the melon family, is native to Africa and is known there by the name "egusi". According to the Cambridge World History of Food:
The egusi (Citrullus colocynthus) is of the same genus as the watermelon and, like it, a native of tropical Africa. But the similarities end abruptly with taste, because the egusi is an extremely bitter fruit. Instead of the pulp, it is the seeds of the egusi that are utilized. Oil is extracted from them, and they are ground into powder for cooking purposes. They are also roasted for consumption. (Vol. 2 p. 1770)
Colocynth is also known as the "Vine of Sodom", as mentioned in Deuteronomy 32/3, King James version: "For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter." Witt's formula doesn't specify whether the pulp or the seeds are used. Very likely, though, it was the pulp, which, despite the dangers in consuming it, was considered a highly reliable purgative, possibly what herbalists nowadays might describe as a "low-dose botanical". The instructions indicate that the patient is to lie down when the pills are administered to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of the fruit. The herbalist James Duke offers a contemporary description of colocynth and confirms that the plant is useful in removing excess fluids from the body.
According to Duke:
Dried pulp of unripe fruit is used medicinally for its drastic purgative and hydragogue cathartic action on the intestinal tract. When the fruit is ripe its pulp dries to form a powder used as a bitter medicine and drastic purgative. This powder is so inflammable that the Arabs collect it to use as kindling. The fruit is used to repel moths from wool. In India, the vine is planted as a sand binder. Seed, often removed from the poisonous pulp and eaten in Central Sahara regions, contains a fixed oil.
Note that by "hydrogogue", Duke is designating a cathartic that promotes discharge of fluids from the bowels. The US Dispensatory for 1918 accordingly describes colocynth thus:
The pulp of colocynth is a powerful drastic, hydragogue cathartic, producing, when given in large doses, violent griping, and sometimes bloody discharges, with dangerous inflammation of the bowels. Death has resulted from a teaspoonful and a half of the powder… Even in moderate doses it sometimes acts with much harshness, and it is therefore seldom prescribed alone. By some writers, it is said to be diuretic. It was frequently employed by the ancient Greeks and the Arabians, though its drastic nature was not unknown to them. Among the moderns it is occasionally used in obstinate dropsy, and in various affections depending on disordered action of the brain. In combination with other cathartics it loses much of its violence, but retains its purgative energy, and in this form is extensively employed. The compound extract of colocynth is a favorite preparation with many practitioners, and, combined with calomel, extract of jalap, and gamboge, it forms a highly efficient and safe cathartic, especially useful in congestion of the portal circle and torpidity the liver. (See Pilules Catharticae Composite.) It is best administered in minute division, effected by trituration with gum or farinaceous matter. The active principle has sometimes been employed, and, in the impure state in which it is prepared by the process of Emile Mouchon, may be given in the dose of a grain (0.065 Gm.).
Note the use here of colocynth in combination with gamboge, much the same as in the Star Pill formula. The appearance of this combination in the US Dispensatory, which had been the official reference for pharmacists, is indicative of the well-established nature of the formula, as well as its applications. (More recent editions of the USD are medicine- rather than pharmacy-oriented.)
What, then, of the other ingredients in the Star Pill formula? They're likely included to ameliorate the distressing effects of the colocynth, which appears to be the principal ingredient of the Star Pill. According to the Wikipedia entry for Gamboge, the plant is used to provide color, and as a dye. If this was Witt's intention in including it, then it's possible that he did so with the "whole picture" in mind; color can have a salutary effect on the patient and contribute to the psychological or "placebo" effect of a medicine. But the gamboge may also have been included to counteract the extreme bitterness of the colocynth. A principal source on plant foods notes that the fruit of the gamboge, or "garcinia cambogia",
…are eaten as an appetizer, having succulent yellow pulp and a pleasant subacid flavor. The rind is dried, or made into a brine with salt, and used as a sour tamarind-like condiment for fish, curries and other foods… (Steven Facciola, Cornucopia II: A sourcebook of edible plants, p. 79)
Parenthetically, "cambogia" does indeed refer to Cambodia, and is native to Southeast Asia and India. Colocynth has West Asian (Turkish) and tropical Asian as well as African roots. According to the US Dispensatory of 1918, gamboge is a powerful purgative and hydragogue, and should be dispensed with caution:
Gamboge is a powerful, drastic, hydragogue cathartic, so very apt to produce nausea and vomiting and much griping when given in the full dose that it is almost never employed except in combination with other cathartics. In large quantities, it can cause fatal effects, and death has resulted from a drachm. The full dose is from two to six grains (0.13-0.4 Gm.), which in cases of tenia has been raised to ten or fifteen grains (0.65-1.0 Gm.). It may be given in pill or emulsion, or dissolved in an alkaline solution. In the dose of five grains (0.32 Gm.) the resin is said to produce copious watery stools, with little or no uneasiness. If this be the case, it is probable that, as it exists in the gum-resin, its purgative property is somewhat modified by the other
These two ingredients, colocynth, and gamboge, worked synergistically to produce the desired result but perhaps also to balance any potentially distressing effects and keep them in check. The inclusion of essential oil of mint, and "fenic" [fennel] in turn would temper the distressing effects of the principal ingredients. That said, the U.S. Dispensatory for 1918 notes that fennel itself might also be used as an emetic:
Peppermint is an aromatic stimulant, much used to allay nausea, relieve spasmodic pains of the stomach and bowels, expel flatus, or cover the taste or qualify the nauseating or griping effects of other medicines.
Fennel seed was used by the ancients. It is one of our most grateful aromatics, and in this country is much employed as a carminative and as a corrigent of other less pleasant medicine, particularly senna and rhubarb. It is recommended for these purposes by the absence of any highly excitant property. An infusion may be prepared by introducing two or three drachms of the seeds into a pint of boiling water. In infants, the infusion is frequently employed as an enema for the expulsion of flatus.
It appears from this brief review of the Star Pill that Witt had contrived an effective purgative, using a potentially dangerous substance to effect the purge in conjunction with other purgatives, but tempered by mint and possibly also by fennel. It's interesting to add that the US Formulary for 1946 offered a formula similar to Witt's, which the Lewis and Clark website suggests was a "milder" version of Rush's formula:
A milder version of Rush's Pills remained an official compound until the 1940s. Here is the recipe for Compound Mild Mercurous Chloride Pills that appeared in the 1946 edition of the National Formulary. This "mild" formula was nonetheless a big gun, combining four purgatives of slightly differing qualities. Early 19th century physicians regarded jalap as "active" and "rapid." Gamboge, from Cambodia, was a "drastic" and "powerful" purge. Calomel (mercurous chloride) was believed to stimulate the liver and the gall bladder, although the opposite was true. Colocynth, or bitter apple, from India and Saharan Africa, was termed a"drastic" and "powerful" purge. According to the United States Dispensatory of 1918, the compound extract of colocynth "combined with calomel, extract of jalap, and gamboge . . . forms a highly efficient and safe cathartic, especially useful in congestion of the portal circle and torpidity of the liver."
There is much more to be learned about Christopher Witt, and some research has already been done, with the promise of more to come. But at the moment it appears that his Star Pill formula was more or less in line with contemporary medical conceptions and practice.
I'll conclude this post with a brief note from Pious Traders in Medicine by Renate Wilson (a book, by the way, recommended to me by Joel Fry). The passage captures something of the predicament in tracking Witt's activity down:
Least well documented but intriguing is Daniel Falkner, born in 1666, who came to Pennsylvania in the 1690s and returned to Germany and then to the colonies as an agent of the Frankfurt Company, an enterprise closely connected to the nascent Pietist movement. He practiced medicine and served New Jersey and Pennsylvania congregations until his death in 1741. He corresponded with the elder Francke in Halle, and, as late as 1730, was referred to as a veritable "Galen" by the head of the Albany congregations, a man not known for his generous temperament.
We might say the same about Christopher Witt: he too is "least well documented but intriguing". The above is highly suggestive, given that Falkner was closely associated with the Kelpius community – and that the reference to the "Albany congregations" was taken from Julius Sachse's book on the German Pietists, a principal (though at times unreliable) source for our current knowledge of Kelpius!
As noted, Joel Fry provided me with a copy of Witt's herbal recipe, which he discovered while digitizing William Bartram's Commonplace Book. Here's the note Joel wrote at that time, which also provides citation information:
The William Bartram "Commonplace Book" remains in private, Bartram family hands, but I made a digital scan of it a few years back. The same WB correspondence book "William Bartram: The Search for Nature's Design" 2010, has a chapter I wrote on the "Commonplace Book" with a description. and index to the complete MS. But there was only room in the book to transcribe the short introductory essay "On Gardening". So, if you ever want to publish, reference the Witt Star Pills, you can use the following credit: (Private collection, John Bartram Association, Bartram's Garden digital copy). (email from Joel Fry, 27 October 2011)
*This post was previously published on the Kelpius Society website, with additional images, at http://www.kelpius.org. For background information on Christopher Witt, see my earlier post on this website, dated April 22, 2019.
**Joel Fry, longtime archivist at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia died unexpectedly in March 2023 following a brief illness.