Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Kenelm Digby, polymath and inventor of the wound salve

Kenelm Digby. Via Wikimedia.

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665) was not a physician but came close to practicing medicine. He published in 1658 a treatise called A Late Discourse … Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy. It consisted of treating dueling wounds, as proposed by Paracelsus, with a “wound salve,” a mixture of powdered earthworms, iron oxide, pig brain, and mummy. It was to be applied to the wound itself but also to the weapon that caused it. It was supposed to be effective by “sympathetic medicine”—transmitting vibrations such as when you pluck the string of a violin. But in a more modern interpretation this can also be understood as the influence one person may have on one another, such as in folie à deux.

Digby came from an old Catholic family that traced its roots back seventeen generations. He was only three years old when his father was executed in the most gruesome manner for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England. Precocious as a schoolboy and with a flair for languages, he was admitted at age fifteen to study at Oxford, where he fell under the influence of several brilliant but eccentric tutors who inspired him with a passion for learning and also for mysticism and magic. One of his tutors in fact left him a valuable collection of books, manuscripts, and odd objects related to black magic and astrology. In 1620 at age seventeen he left Oxford without a degree because he had fallen in love with a young woman of whom his mother disapproved. He was sent to France for three years to finish his education, but had to flee from there, apparently to escape from the “insistent attentions” of Queen Marie de Medici. By then he was sufficiently versed in Italian and fencing to lecture on that subject in Siena. He was then commissioned by King James I to negotiate (unsuccessfully) in Madrid a marriage of Prince Charles to the Infanta of Spain.

On his return to England, he was knighted by King James I. He then decided to work for himself by becoming a privateer, fitting out two ships, plundering French, Egyptian, Dutch, and Venetian ships in the Mediterranean, notably in the bay of Scanderoon (1627). He filled his boats with loot and on returning to England was given the welcome of a hero. He spent the next four years abroad, mainly in Paris, mostly collecting books. He became on intimate terms with famous philosophers such as René Descartes. He also extended his interests to religion and beautiful women. In 1625 he married an attractive courtesan “to save her from the brothel-house.”

Digby has been described as a handsome person, gigantic, with a great voice, a “noble address,” and extraordinary strength as well as great courage. He is said to have understood ten or twelve languages. In 1639 he briefly converted to Anglicanism, but after the death of his young wife became a Catholic again and found it desirable to leave for France. There he killed a nobleman in a duel but was pardoned by the King of France, who gave him an immediate pardon and a safe escort of 200 men to get him safely into Flanders. On returning to England, he was to his surprise thrown into prison for nearly two years, but there was able to write about Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici. Later he was involved in “too many intrigues to describe,” even fell into the good graces of Oliver Cromwell and tried to convert him to Catholicism. He died in 1665, five years after the restoration of the Stuarts.

Digby lived in an age when one could still be a successful polymath. He took the whole world’s knowledge as his province—a true uomo universal. He was a great stylist and wrote scientific and philosophical works, on astrology, theology, alchemy, cookery, herbs, nautical instruments, and even lip-reading and teaching deaf-mutes to speak. In his many books he made several allusions to embryology (hatching of hen’s eggs); he studied the use of nitrous salt or saltpeter as essential to plant growth; and at the University of Montpellier he lectured on the virtues of ferrous sulphate as an astringent and antiseptic. He wrote a treatise on the manufacture of glass; commented on William Harvey’s new doctrine of the circulation of the blood; and was a founding member of the Royal Society. In our time, beautifully bound volumes of his works continue to adorn the shelves of the great libraries of Great Britain and Europe, but he seems to owe his place in modern medical books chiefly for inventing his magical salve.



  1. Robin Flower. Kenelm Digby Papers. The British Museum Quarterly Dec 1929; 4(3):82.
  2. John Fulton. Sir Kenelm Digby, F.R.S. (1603–1665). Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London July 1960;15:199.
  3. Robert Gordon Grenell. Sir Kenelm Digby, Embryologist. Bulletin of the History of Medicine June 1941;10(1):48.
  4. Elizabeth Hedrick. Romancing the salve: Sir Kenelm Digby and the powder of sympathy. BJHS June 2008;41(2):161.
  5. Seth Lobis. Sir Kenelm Digby and the Power of Sympathy. Huntington Library Quarterly June 2011:74:243.
  6. Wyndham Miles. Sir Kenelm Digby, Alchemist, Scholar, Courtier, and Man of Adventure. Chymia June 1949;(2):119.
  7. Joe Moshenska. Sir Kenelm Digby’s Interruptions: Piracy and Lived Romance in the 1620s. Studies in Philology Spring 2016:424.
  8. Alfred Reid. Hawthorne’s Humanism: “The Birthmark” and Sir Kenelm Digby. American Literature Nov 1966;38(3):337.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2023  |  Sections  |  Physicians of Note

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