17 March 2008

Maladies & Treatments:
Healing with Urine

By Sandra Schwab

In the past human and animal urine was used for all kinds of things: for cleaning cloth and wool (even as late as 1966, the British government decreed that the famous Harris Tweed ought to be cleaned with urine--even if it did smell funny), for tanning, as reducing agent in dyeing, and even for the production of watercolours: since 1750 the colour Indian yellow had been imported from India, but what nobody in Britain knew was that the lovely deep yellow was the result of feeding cows only with mango leaves and water, collecting the urine (or perhaps the earth on which the cows had peed), drying it and eventually forming funny smelling balls of the raw pigment. Apart from that, urine has always been used in medicine as well.

In the antiquity, urine didn't yet play an important part in medical diagnosis, even though doctors already knew that a strange smell or a strange colour might indicate a disease: "If the urine stinks, is too thin or too thick and black of colour, the patient ought prepare for his last journey." Nevertheless, looking at the urine of a patient was not yet part of the doctor's routine. However, they did recommend using urine as medication: drinking one's own urine was supposed to help against snake bites, poisoning, and dropsy. Urine boiled in the skin of a pomegranate was said to heal a purulent inflammation of the ears, while patients who had trouble with breathing were treated with the urine of pure young boys. And those with kidney problems were given donkey urine. Furthermore, scars, burns, rashes and other skin problems were all treated with urine as well.

Due to the influence of Arabian teachings, the uroscopy eventually became an important part of medical diagnosis in the Middle Ages. Indeed, looking at the urine of a patient, inspecting the quantity and quality, the smell, taste, colour and cloudiness of it became such an important task of the medieval doctor that he is usually depicted with the uroscopy flask in art. The flask with the morning urine of a patient was brought to the doctor who could then consult his charts of urine colours. Different parts of the flask were thought to correspond to specific parts of the body, therefore some doctors used flasks that looked liked miniature humans.

The art of uroscopy became more and more complicated as more and more elaborate charts of urine colours were published. In addition, the superstition surrounding this form of diagnosis grew: some doctors even claimed they could tell not only the age and the sex of the patient from looking at the urine, but also whether somebody was still a virgin. Due to these extreme forms of uroscopy, it was finally banned from orthodox medicine. Yet this does not mean that the practice of uroscopy disappeared: one of the most famous practitioners of this art was Johann Reinbacher, who died in 1935. In the Steiermark (in Austria) and beyond he was known as the "Höllerhansl" and he enjoyed such a good reputation that in the years 1925-1930 the conductors on the trains between Graz and Stainz gave out numbered tickets to regulated the masses of people who wanted Reinbacher to look at their urine. Even today this railway line is known as the "Flascherlzug" (the "Bottle-Train") because of the bottles of urine people brought to Reinbacher, who lived near Stainz.

In folk medicine, urine was not only used as medication (for the treatment of skin and eye problems, of wounds and burns, of fever, stomach pains, sprains, and flatulence), but also for charms and magic: for example, peeing through one's wedding ring was supposed to prevent impotence; and if you had fever, you ought to pee into a river while saying the following blessing:

Flowing water, I come to thee,
Seventy-seven forms of fever I bring to thee,
Thou shalt carry it over stick and stone!
That shall help [insert name of patient],
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

While some of these customs seem outlandish in the extreme, others do contain a grain of truth: treatments with urine can indeed be quite effective especially when it comes to skin problems such as acne or neurodermatitis, wounds, burns, but also skin diseases like shingles.

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