“Marvailous Cures”: sympathetic medicine connecting Europe and China

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia

Daniel Vuillermin
Beijing, China (Winter 2018)


Application of a powder of sympathy. Source: Tentzel A (ed) 1662
Theatrum Sympatheticum Auctum (Nuremberg: Johann Andreas Endter &
the Heirs  of Wolfgang Endter Jr), p 125 (Reproduced with permission,
Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, 30.4 Med.: VD17 23:290712A.)

In Renaissance Europe the concept of curing illnesses at a distance did not seem as outlandish as it would today. A newfound interest in classical remedies at a time when new plants were being found in the Americas and Asia ushered in an interest in pharmacological experimentation but also in the commercialization of remedies.1 Despite the new Anglo-European zeitgeist driven by the seventeenth century’s “Scientific Revolution,” these were sometimes grounded in medieval alchemy.

One such quack “cure” appeared in London in 1688 in an anonymous pamphlet titled Curious Enquiries Being Six Brief Discourses. This was the “powder of sympathy,” pulvis sympatheticus. It was based on the sixteenth sixteenth century notion of a magic “weapon salve,” which was to be applied to the weapon that had inflicted the wound rather than to the wound itself, as it was believed that there was a cosmological link between the two. Weapon salve ingredients usually included blood from the wound. Paracelsus (1493–1541), founder of toxicology, specifically instructed to:

[t]ake of moss growing on the head of a thief who has been hanged and left in the air; of real mummy; of human blood, still warm – of each one ounce; of human suet, two ounces; of linseed oil, turpentine, and Armenian bole – of each two drachms. Mix all well in a mortar, and keep the salve in an oblong, narrow urn.”2

The use of a sympathetic magic powder is popularly credited to the dynamic English diplomat Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), who hoped to secure the priority of his invention, at least in Europe, and explain its underlying principles by the popular corpuscular theory.

One of the most pressing practical problems of the day was to accurately determine one’s position at sea. Latitude determinations were fairly straightforward, but measuring the longitude required an accurate clock. Surprisingly, Digby’s powder of sympathy was proposed as a solution by invoking the so-called “Wounded Dog Theory.” This would have had the ship’s captain take a wounded dog on his voyage and leave a discarded bandage from the wound in the home port. A trusted timekeeper would dip the bandage into the powder in the dog’s wound at a set time every day, causing the animal to yelp in pain – the cure was certainly not painless – and this would provide a direct measure of the time on shore. Compared with the local time indicated by the sun, a vessel’s longitude at sea could then be calculated.

While visiting Italy in 1622, Digby claimed to have learned about the powder:

It was a religious Carmelite, that came from the Indies and Persia to Florence, he had also been at China, who having done many marvailous cures with his Powder, after his arrival to Toscany, the Duke said he would be very glad to learn it of him … The Carmelite answered him, that it was a secret which he had learnt in the oriental parts, and he thought there was not any who knew it in Europe but himself, and that it deserved not to be divulged … But a few moneths after I had opportunity to do an important courtesie to the said Fryer, which induced him to discover unto me his secret, and the same year he returned to Persia; … now there is no other knows this secret in Europe but my self …3

He would also repeat this tale to King James of England (1566–1625), who had a “particular talent, and marvailous sagacity, to discusse natural things.4 However, this popular narrative is likely an invention, since it is improbable that Digby’s itinerant monk traveled to China at the time. The late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) was a period of decline and isolation, beset by a collapsing government, natural disasters, crop failures, and social unrest.5 Few Christian missionaries were permitted beyond the port city of Macau; one notable exception was the erudite Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). Missionary presence was dominated by the Jesuits and the Dominicans; the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, however, are noteworthy for unsuccessfully having attempted to establish a foothold in Macau during the early Qing Dynasty, some thirty years after Digby’s death.6 Digby’s Carmelite monk is likely an imaginary figure, a popular character in seventeenth century romances.7

Although Digby’s account of this “secret cure” may be spurious, there are parallels between the sympathetic medicines in Renaissance European and in ancient Chinese medicine. The European philosophy can be traced to Paracelsus, who believed that man and heaven are intimately linked through a divine spirit and hence that one should take a holistic approach in one’s endeavors. In ancient China the body and medicine were connected through sympathetic resonance, the body being not autonomous but a microcosm of the heavens, nature, and humankind. The classic text, Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (黄帝内经), from the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), summarizes the basic ideas:

The Heart is the office of the lord and ruler, whence the brilliance of the spirits emerges; the Lung is the office of the minister, whence regulation and economies emerge; the Liver is the office of the generals of the army, whence strategies emerge; the Gall Bladder is the office of the rectifier, whence judgments and decisions emerge; the Chest is the office of the minister and envoy, whence joy and happiness emerge; the Spleen and Stomach are the bureau of storehouses, whence the five flavours emerge.”8

This sympathetic system of the body, the natural world, and the cosmos was called “organismic” by Joseph Needham (1900–1995), the British sinologist:

[In ancient Chinese thought], conceptions are not subsumed under one another but placed side by side in a pattern, and things influence one another not by acts of mechanical causation, but by a kind of ‘inductance’.”9

This is evident in the meridian theory of Chinese medicine. Meridians – a term also used in longitude determination – are channels through which Qi (气) and blood move and regulate Yin (阴) and Yang (阳).10 Thus, many Chinese medical treatments, such as acupuncture, treat ailments not directly but through a system of correspondence. Medical historian Paul Unschuld describes one such system as “magic correspondence,” which bears a striking resemblance to the Wounded Dog Theory in that illness could be inflicted by damaging someone’s image even though the two might be separated by vast distances.11 One such account from the late-Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) describes how a ruler was defeated by “wounding” his portrait:

After King Wu had replaced [the rule of the] Yin [with the rule of the Zhou], Marquis Ting stayed away from Court. [King Wu’s] grandfather then drew a picture of Ting on a bamboo tablet and shot three arrows into it. Ting fell ill and a soothsayer spoke: ‘This situation is serious!’ [Ting] then surrendered himself and his entire territory. The grandfather sent an emissary who removed an arrow from Marquis Ting’s head on the first day, an arrow from his mouth on the second, and an arrow from his abdomen on the third. The Marquis’ illness was gradually healed.”12

Clearly magic therapy had powers to harm as well as to cure. One Chinese physician, Dao Hungqing (452–536 CE), prescribed applying a concoction made of wine and charred crossbow ashes on the abdomen of a woman in labor to speed up delivery.13 Although there is no evidence that the Wounded Dog Theory was derived from ancient Chinese practices, both they share the idea that illness might be cured at a distance. There are no indication that the efficacy of the Wounded Dog Theory has ever been put to the test, nor of its efficacy; imagine the cruelty involved in keeping the wound open on long ocean voyages, irrespective as to whether or not the cure would even work over the vast distances implied. Moreover, Chinese medicine tends to be perceived as “hocus pocus – the product of primitive or magical thinking.”14 Yet the concepts on which it was based suggests early modern European and Chinese medicine were not so different after all.



  1. Porter R 1999 The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. London, Harper Press, p 190.
  2. Goclenius R 1613 Tractatus de Magnetica Vulnerum Curatione (Frankfurt) p 95 (orig. publ. Marburg, 1608).
  3. Digby K 1658 A Late Discourse Made in a Solemn Assembly of Nobles and Learned Men at Montpellier in France, by Sir Kenelm Digby, Kt. &c., Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy, transl (1664) by R White, 4th edn (London: printed by J.G. and to be sold by Octavian Pulleyn).
  4. Cited in: Hedrick E 2008 Romancing the Salve: Sir Kenelm Digby and the Powder of Sympathy. Br. J. Hist. Sci., 41, pp 161–85.
  5. Unschuld PU 1985 Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Los Angeles: Univ California Press, pp 189–92.
  6. Tiedemann RG 2015 Reference Guide to Missionary Societies in China: From the 16th to the 20th Centuries. Oxon: Routledge, p 26.
  7. Hedrick, op. cit.
  8. Lo V 2013 The Han Period. Chinese Medicine and Healing, TJ Hinrichs and LL Barnes (eds). Cambridge: Harvard Univ Press, p 57.
  9. Kaptchuk TJ 2000 Chinese Medicine: The Web That Has No Weaver. London: Rider, pp 14–15.
  10. Ibid, 105.
  11. Unschuld, op. cit., 52.
  12. Ibid, 53.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Kaptchuk, op. cit., 1.



DANIEL VUILLERMIN, PhD, is a lecturer at the Institute for Medical Humanities at Peking University in China. He is currently writing a cultural history of diagnosis.


RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics and Associated Dean (Global Engagement) at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. His recent monograph, Time and Time Again (2017, Institute of Physics Publishing, UK), explores the history of the determination of longitude at sea in the 17th Century.


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