Nicolas Monardes - Spanish physician
Nicolas Monardes – Spanish physician

Chapter 20. Sixteenth century part 7. Monardes describes the Guiac cure for syphilis

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England 1577 Nicholas Monardes, Seville physician tells how to use guaiac to treat syphilis

In his book on new drugs and therapies from the new Spanish colonies “Joyfull Newes out of the New Founde Worlde, by Nicholas Monardes the Seville physician ” first edition in Spanish in 1565 translated into English in 1577 by John Frampton, Monardes gives a detailed account and seemingly very authoritative account of how to use Guaiac wood to cure syphilis

Here are the instructions for the Guaiac cure from Monardes’s book.  I have translated from archaic English, paraphrased and summarized where possible.

“The wood of the West Indies called guaiac was discovered at the time that Santo Domingo was first discovered and found there in abundance. A Spaniard had syphilis which he had caught from a native woman. The Spaniard’s servant was a native healer and gave him guaiac water. This not only alleviated the symptoms but completely cured the syphilis. Immediately, other Spaniards who had contracted syphilis took the same cure and the news quickly spread, first to Seville and then throughout the world. This is definitely the best remedy (says Monardes) for syphilis and it heals and cures it completely.

Syphilis (always according to Monardes) originated in Santo Domingo where the pox is as common among the natives as measles is in Europe. Most of them, both men and women have it and it does not carry any stigma.

Columbus brings natives with syphilis to Naples

At the time when King Charles of France was occupying Naples with his army, Christopher Colombus arrived in Naples, fresh from his discovery of Santo Domingo and other territories, bringing with him a great number of natives, both men and women. The warring parties had arrived at a peace treaty and the Spaniards started ” to have conversation ” with the native women. Many of the Spanish, Italian and German soldiers serving with the Spanish king became infected. When the two warring parties reached a truce and started fraternising, the soldiers of the French King became infected and from there it spread to the whole world.

Was syphilis caused by the conjunction of Saturn and Mars?

Monardes then tells us what each nation calls the pox, each calling it after their traditional enemy country. He tells us that physicians were nonplussed, giving all sorts of reasons for it. Some thought that it was caused by conjunctions of Saturn and Mars. They gave it all sorts of names, and sometimes confused it with leprosy and elephantiasis, without realising that it was a new disease.

Many (says M) have written about guaiac wood, some saying that it is ebony, some calling it box and many other other names but it is a new kind of tree which comes from a new country.

Guiac,  a tree found in Santo Domingo

Anyway, it is a large tree, the size of an oak with many branches. The spawood (” rinde “) is thick and dry and full of sap (” Gumme “). The heart wood (” hart ” is large, nearly black and hard as, or harder than ebony. It grows a small leaf and bud (” hard “) and yellow flowers are produced every year which produce a round fruit containing many kernels. The fruit is the same size as a grapefruit (” meddlers “) whose trees are also found in abundance in Santo Domingo.

A smaller Guiac tree is found in Peurto Rico

Later, a similar tree of this genus was found in Saint John in Puerto Rico, which is close to Santo Domingo. The trunk and branches of this tree are smaller than the Santo Domingo guaiac tree and there is hardly any heartwood, it being found only in the trunk. It smells sweeter and is more bitter than the Santo Domingo variety. Because of its marvelous effects it is called Holy Wood and for very good reason : It works better than the Santo Domingo variety. Both kinds work extremely well however. A decoction made from it is good for the pox in particular but also many other ” infirmities “.

How to make a decoction of Guiac wood

They (he presumably means the natives and those Europeans who have successfully taken the cure) take twelve ounces of shavings of the wood together with 2 ounces of the spawood, also in shavings, and put the guaiac in a gallon and a half (” 3 pottles “) of water, in a new pot, large enough that the water is not up to the brim. The wood is left to steep for 24 hours and then with a lid on it is put on a low fire of glowing coal until one gallon has evaporated (one pottel is left). To make sure that exactly one third is left after the evaporation, when adding the water to the pot, half a gallon is added first and a small rod is left in the pot to mark the half gallon mark, before adding the rest of the water. In this way they can tell when one gallon has evaporated away. This decoction is then cooled, strained and kept in a glass vessel. They then add two gallons of water to the now softened (” sodded “) wood and steep it (” seeth) until half a gallon has been absorbed away. This water is then strained and put to one side and it is taken in this form.”

(L.P. Hartely wrote ” The past is another country, they do things differently there “. They certainly spoke another language. So I cannot vouch for having translated everything in the above absolutely accurately – so stick to the penicilin for now. )

How to carry out the Guaic cure

“The sick man is then purged according to the advice of a physician and then put to bed in a warm room, cold and drafts to be excluded. He is to take ten ounces of the first decoction which was made over the fire early in the morning and wrapped up in clothes in order for him to sweat thoroughly. The sweating should be carried on for at least two hours. He should then have the sweat cleaned off him and put on a warm shirt and the rest of his linen (undergarments?) clothes. Four hours after this sweat session, he can eat a ” reasonable ” amount of raisins, almonds and some biscuit (” Bisket “). He should drink some of the second decoction of water, as much as he wants, throughout the day. Eight hours after eating he should once again take another ten ounces of the first decoction, well warmed, and then wrapped up in bed again to sweat for another two hours. The sweat is again cleaned off and warm clothes put on and he can eat some more raisins, almonds and biscuit and drink more of the second decoction.

This procedure is to be carried out daily for 15 days unless he is particularly weak, in which case he can be comforted by being given a little roast chicken. If the sick man is weak (” debilited ” and is unable to stand the regime, he can be given from the outset, a very small amount of chicken, with increasing amounts allowed. Once the fifteen days are up he should be purged on the sixteenth day. He should take the equivalent of the weight of five shillings of canafistola (presumably this is for the purge). During the day of the purge he should drink only the second decoction. The regime is then continued for another twenty days with exactly the same regime as the first fifteen days, except that instead of chicken he can eat half a roasted pullet or a bit more. He may get out of bed but must stay in the warm room with plenty of clothes on. At the end of the twenty days he should take another purge. He should then ” take care to keepe good order ” and carry on drinking the water for another forty days, staying away from Women and Wine especially. Instead of wine he should drink the second guaiac decoction. If he does not want to (presumably because he is heartily sick of it by then!), he can drink decoction of anis or fennel seeds, eating ” little at night ” and no meat.

The cure can be used for many other ailments

This is the best way to take the ” water of the wood ” which cures many incurable maladies which cannot be cured with other medicines and this water is the best remedy in the world for healing the disease of the pox, of whatever shape or form, because it is extirpated, never to return. While this is its main use, it can also be used for dropsy, shortness of breath, epilepsy, diseases of the bladder and the kidneys, for joint pain, for all ” evils caused of colde Humors “, for ” ventositie ” (flatulence) and for major and debilitating diseases before which physicians are powerless. A lot of people have made all kinds of concoctions, including syrups and they may have a good effect. But in my opinion, whoever wants to take the water of the wood should take it in exactly the manner I have described because experience has proved that this method works.

The water is good for the teeth, making them white and ” affirmyng and fastning them ” through continual washing of them.

The Galenical classification (of course!)

The water is ” hot and drie in the second degree “.” (The typical Galenical classification nonsense of the time.)

Medical properties of Guaic

Here are some modern medical dictionaries on the medical properties of guaiac :

Guaiac : Lignum vitae Herbal medicine

“…A Caribbean tree that is rich in saponins, resin, guaiaretic and guaicolic acids : it is anti-inflammatory, laxative and stimulatory, and has been used to treat arthritis and goût ; its products have been commercialised in mainstream medicine in the guaiac test for occult bleeding of the intestine, which is often a sign of colorectal cancer….”

Segen’s medical dictionary


” Nauseant, diaphoretic (produces sweating), stimulant, and reagent used in testing for occult blood. Also called gauiac gum…. “

Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary

” ….There is a growing body of evidence which indicates that fever exerts an adverse influence upon the growth of certain bacteria, diminishes the potency of toxins, favours phagocytosis and stimulates the development of immune bodies…. ”

Walter M. Simpson, Director, Kettering Institute for Medical Research, Dayton, Ohio

See Simpson’s paper on ” fever therapy ” for venereal diseases in 1932 entry of this timeline.

My observations:

  1. Monardes’s book appeared quite late in the guaiac craze, with the first Spanish edition in 1565. So this book could not have fired the initial enthusiasm for it. Von Hutten wrote an influential treatise in 1519, De morbo Gallico (On the French disease) praising the virtues of the ” guaiac cure ” after he thought himself cured after years of suffering unsuccessful administration of mercury. This fanned the flames of enthusiasm for guaiac, fuelling the guaiac boom. The wealthiest merchants and bankers in the world at the time, the Fuegers, the Rockefellers or Rothschilds of their day, had been granted a monopoly on the import of guaiac to Europe and were of course keen to promote its use.
  2. Van Hutten had a relapse and died a painful and unpleasant death from syphilis in 1523, which seems to have lead to a waning of enthusiasm for guaiac.
  3. In 1530 Benvenuto Cellini allegedly cured himself of syphilis with two fifty day, self administered guaiac cures which seem to follow the Monardes protocol pretty well from what we can tell from reading Cellini. (I think the second bout of illness may have been Lyme disease). Thus, a Monardes type ” guaiac cure ” protocol must have been widely known about and used, several decades before Monardes’ book.
  4. Paracelsus was anti-guaiac and pro-mercury (but it’s likely that Paracelsus only used it externally) although his opinion carried little weight in his lifetime and the vested interests behind guaiac managed to shut him up, fairly successfully. However, Paracelsus died in 1541 and we are told that starting around 20 years after his death, he was becoming a mythical, cult figure, with tales of miraculous cures. As Paracelus’ reputation rose, the enthusiasm for mercury treatments for syphilis must also have risen. An important factor in the rise of mercury was also that the Fueggers were now behind it, going from having no mercury interests at the time of Paracelsus to cornering the market in mercury, (from 1536 onwards) some time after they had managed to muzzle him.
  5. Guaiac continued to vie with mercury as the drug of choice for syphilis but by around 1700, mercury was in the ascendant and guaiac fell into disuse for syphilis.
  6. Was Monardes’ the best version of the cure? Had it become somewhat bastardized since the original cure was copied from native Caribbean healers? Perhaps the orthodox physicians of the time would have muddied the waters and added all kinds of useless “galenicals” , bleeding and blistering to the treatment thereby ruining its effectiveness? Even though Monardes gives the galenical degrees on the hot/cold and moist/dry scales for the drug, he does so right at the end of his protocol and I think this is more a matter of putting a little stamp at the bottom saying: “Yes, I am a proper, licensed physician”, rather than any enthusiasm for the galenical classification. It seems to me that Monardes is keen to give the “pure and original” version of the cure. So I think people must have been using this protocol or one very similar for around fifty years before Monardes’ book.

Proof that fever therapy for Syphilis works

Now for the bombshell: “Fever therapy” for both gonorrhea and syphilis and other venereal diseases was being carried out on patients with drug resistant strains of the disease through the 1930’s (see my entries for these dates) and it was completely successful. In 1917, even terminal neurosyphilis was being successfully treated with “malariotherapy”. Localized, deep tissue hyperthermia, (“diathermy”) induced by electromagnetic short waves pulsed between condenser plates was being used very successfully in the US, Britain and elsewhere in the 1920’s to cure pulmonary tuberculosis. Monardes says that the guaiac cure is good for diseases that the doctors of the time could not cure by other means and Cellini reports that he felt wonderful after his cures. (Celini did a second, successful cure for an unspecified illness which I think may have been Lyme disease – see the chapter on Celini) So it looks to me as though, not only was the guaiac cure effective for syphilis, it would have been effective for other venereal diseases as well (and syphilis was often confused with other STDs.)

Was the Guaiac cure a cure-all?  I think it was

Not only that, it would have been successful in curing most or all diseases of bacteriological origin. (Of course I am assuming here that the guaiac concoction really worked in raising the body temperature. I cannot find any data on this.) The normal body temperature is around 36C. Fever starts at around 38C. In the “fever therapy” of the 1930’s the temperature was raised after an hour in the chamber, to around 41C.
The papers written in the 1930’s reveal that frequent long sessions were about on a par for effectiveness with fewer, shorter sessions at higher temperatures. A typical 1930’s treatment would be a weekly, 5 hour session at 41C. How effective was the guaiac in raising the temperature, combined with the other measures: going to bed fully clothed in a warm room? I’m guessing that the Monardes protocol compensated by the frequency of “fever therapy” (administered twice daily for a total of 4 hours) for a possible lack of effectiveness in raising the temperature of the patient really high. The fever therapy is not all there is to the Monardes protocol though. There is a strong element of fasting. The patient is allowed a few raisins, almonds and some hard bread concoction. This would be just enough to replace the calories burned up by the hyperthermia, a bit like the herbal teas and broth given in a Buchinger fast to replace the calories burned up the daily brisk walks. In both cases the patient would remain in a state of fasting ketosis. So at the same time that the fever therapy would be killing the spyrochete (or other bacteria) and improving immune function, a complete cellular and extra cellular cleansing and renewal would be taking place through fasting induced autophagy. This would allow the body to clean out the dead and dying bacteria and toxins released by dying bacteria. So carried out properly, I believe that this protocol was a cure-all, a tremendously powerful blend of hyperthermia and fasting. As the natural hygienists in the US discovered in the late 19th and then 20th century and Buchinger and others in Germany in the 20th century, a five week fast will cure just about anything you care to name.

Why did it fall out of favour?

So why did it fall out of favour and why did people allow themselves to have their health ruined by huge, toxic doses of mercury? If the syphilis did not maim or kill you, the mercury surely would. I think the medical profession and the mercury quacks must be responsible to a great extent, by pushing a treatment they would need to administer, a powerful and toxic drug that supposedly would have required their “great skill”. The guaiac cure would have required a huge amount of discipline and self reliance on the part of the patient and possibly, as in Cellini’s case, the strength of mind to ignore your doctor’s advice. Then the protocol had to be carried out properly. There must have been a great temptation to cut corners, to eat heartily for example instead of near total fasting and perhaps difficulty in getting warm enough in the chilly, draughty bedrooms of the 16th and 17th centuries in Northern Europe, especially in winter. Perhaps some people thought that guaiac was itself a therapeutic agent that somehow killed the syphilis, without needing to go through all that sweating and fasting and purging rigmarole, rather than it being what it was: just an adjunct to help raise the body’s temperature to fever temperature so that the body could carry out its own healing. I’m guessing too, that in a case like Van Hutten’s, rather similar to the high failure rate of cancer patients who switch belatedly from cut, burn and poison therapies to natural cancer therapies, the immune system is too badly damaged by mercury in the case of the syphilitic or radio and chemo in the case of the cancer patient, for the therapy to work properly.

I believe that the medical profession, including our so called first alternative physician Paracelsus must bear most of the responsibility for what I believe to be a powerful therapy dying out. That it was used for 200 years, probably by independent minded people like Cellini, must be a testament to its effectiveness.

Is Paracelsus to blame?

There may be another reason for it not getting the traction it deserved. At the time that these new drugs were being imported from the new world, tobacco was considered one of them. It was initially considered a cure-all, a universal panacea and it appears that Monardes was as responsible for the promotion of tobacco as medicine as anyone. As people discovered that tobacco was not all it was cracked up to be, perhaps the guaiac was tarred with the same brush in people’s minds.

Paracelsus must also bear some responsibility. Twenty years after his death a Paracelsus cult was in full swing and so people must have thought that if Paracelsus used mercury for syphilis, then that must be the correct treatment. (Never mind that Paracelsus probably used minute amounts together with other modalities.)

Could the Guaic cure have cured TB?

If the guaiac based therapy had been adopted wholeheartedly and promoted by the medical profession, it may have been a simple answer to the scourge of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases that maimed and killed millions in the 19th and early 20th century and instead of an invalid population, with their health ruined by being given huge doses of mercury for even the most trivial of illnesses, people might have been bursting with health.

Could it have cured cancer?

Could the guaiac cure cure cancer? Even the most enthusiast partisans of fasting admit that it does not usually work on cancer. But it is effective as an adjunct. The Breuss cancer cure is a hybrid of fasting, vegetable juicing and herbalism for example. And fasting can be used just before and after radiotherapy to enhance the effects of the radiotherapy on cancer cells and diminish the toxic effect on healthy cells (see my chapter on fasting). Hyperthermia is used in alternative cancer clinics in German speaking countries. So could a combination of the two, as in the guaiac cure, have worked on cancer? I bet it could have, especially if combined with some anti-cancer herbs such as in poor man’s theriac.

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