25 August 2011

Packing a wound with peppercorns

Sounds like a medieval torture, but it apparently has been conventional folk medicine practice for centuries, including at the first Indianapolis 500 race, as reported in the June issue of the Smithsonian magazine:
Taken to a local hospital, the men involved in the incident at mile 240 were found to have serious but not life-threatening injuries... After being carried to the enclosure, Greiner had likely received the standard Speedway hospital treatment: his wounds packed with black peppercorns to deter infection and bandaged with bed linen donated by local citizens. He had probably been given a few stiff belts of rye whiskey as well; he seemed serene and reflective... 
A quick search revealed a reference to pepper in wounds in volume 42 of The Sacred Books of the East:
"The pepper-corn cures the wounds that have been struck by missiles, it also cures the wounds from stabs.  Anent it the gods decreed: 'Powerful to secure life this (plant) shall be!'"
And from Wikipedia:
Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BCE... 
And a final footnote:
It is commonly believed that during the Middle Ages, pepper was used to conceal the taste of partially rotten meat. There is no evidence to support this claim, and historians view it as highly unlikely: in the Middle Ages, pepper was a luxury item, affordable only to the wealthy, who certainly had unspoiled meat available as well. In addition, people of the time certainly knew that eating spoiled food would make them sick.
Photo credit Sage Ross.


  1. But when the ancients refer to pepper it is sometimes unclear if they are referring to black pepper (Piper nigrum) or long pepper (Piper longum) as both were available to them.

    "Among the Greeks and Romans and prior to the European discovery of the New World, long pepper was an important and well-known spice. The ancient history of black pepper is often interlinked with (and confused with) that of long pepper, though Theophrastus distinguished the two in the first work of botany. The Romans knew of both and often referred to either as just piper; Pliny erroneously believed dried black pepper and long pepper came from the same plant."

  2. "Anent it the gods decreed: 'Powerful to secure life this (plant) shall be!'"

    Anybody else hear Yoda's voice saying this?

  3. I'm glad to hear the rotten meat eating dogma refuted. Or ancestors were so much smarter than we commonly assume.

  4. I'm pretty sure that the reason spices were so valuable was because they did allow people to eat meat that had otherwise gone bad.
    Especially true in the warmer climates before the advent of refrigeration. I do believe that is why Southern dishes are spicier than northern dishes.

  5. There is a scientific rationale for the efficacy of black pepper in wound healing.

    Piperine, the black pepper alkaloid that promotes pungency, is a serotonin agonist (promoter). It shares this quality with other alkaloids such as capsaicin, found in chile peppers, and cumin's cuminaldehyde. There are scattered reports in the medical literature of their potential use in mood disorders.

    Wikipedia summarizes the role of serotonin in wounds.

    Serotonin (...) eventually finds its way out of tissues into the blood. There, it is actively taken up by blood platelets, which store it. When the platelets bind to a clot, they disgorge serotonin, where it serves as a vasoconstrictor and helps to regulate hemostasis and blood clotting. Serotonin also is a growth factor for some types of cells, which may give it a role in wound healing.

    Manipulation of such basic neurotransmitters as serotonin or dopamine with natural substances is unfortunately little recognized especially since doing so can ameliorate not only mood disorders but also a wide variety of immune disorders.

  6. @nolandda

    Long pepper (Piper longum) produces the same alkaloid, piperine, as black pepper. Therefore, either, if my hypothesis is correct, would aid blood clotting and even wound healing.

  7. @gbradley--I read something recently somewhere (can't remember where) that spoiled meat doesn't necessarily cause illness. I suspect your theory about spices is on the nose. Spices probably couldn't conceal the bad taste of seriously rotten meat, but it could cover up mild spoilage.

    --Swift Loris


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