Created By: SharleeDJuly 28, 2011 Last Edited By: SharleeDAugust 26, 2011
Troped

Prescribing Willow Bark Tea

The natural precursor of a modern drug is referenced to show that an old-time healer is competent.

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While most medications are a mystery to most audiences, there are a few whose native source is more familiar. Willow bark as a precursor to aspirin, or bread mold as that of penicillin, are the usual examples; others, such as poppy extract for a sedative, are more obscure, but still recognizable to viewers who take an interest.

Therefore, in order to show that a primitive healer, herbalist, or apothecary is genuinely skilled, not ignorant or a fraud, they're shown administering one of these (very) few recognizable proto-drugs to patients in need. Never mind that an historical physician of the era may not know about the medicine in question, or be capable of extracting the active substance from its raw state, or that another, little-known remedy from the period might be safer and more effective: it's always the treatment audiences will recognize that gets used.

Can be an example of Viewers Are Geniuses, for the more obscure remedies. Does not apply to fictional medications or recreational stimulants, as use of such drugs does not demonstrate legitimate medical know-how.

Examples:

Film

  • Disney's Pocohontas has Pocohontas give John Smith willow bark for the pain after he is shot in the side.

Literature

  • This is done in the Circle Of Magic series even to the point of actually using willow bark tea by name for headaches and fevers and the like. At one point there is an epidemic and very modern steps to quarantine the disease and develop treatments through experimentation are undertaken. Somewhat justified in that magic has allowed people in that universe to be much more knowledgeable about the mechanics of the world.

  • In one of the Lord Darcy stories, an elderly herb-woman uses a bread-mold poultice to treat wounds, suggesting she's using penicillin as an antibiotic. Subverted in that it gets her into trouble with the real professional healers, who use magic to treat wounds and can't be having with such superstitious remedies.

  • The moldy bread poultice is one of Magrat Garlick's specialties in the Discworld series.
    • In Carpe Jugulum, Magrat also makes willow bark tablets. It also gets mentioned in Hogfather:
    Bursar: Willow bark.
    Senior Wrangler: That might work. It's an analgesic.
    Ridcully: Well, possibly, but he might be better putting it in his mouth.

  • Cadfael is all over this. He was a soldier in the Crusades, and he's an apothecary in his monastic community. Lavender for headaches (The Price of Light), poppy extract, and so on.

  • In the Earths Children series it's mentioned that practically everybody knows about willow bark tea, even non-healers.

  • In the Garrett PI fantasy/noir series, Dean brews willow-bark tea for Garrett after nights of heavy drinking.

  • In the novel Outlander, Claire Beauchamp demonstrates even more knowledge when she comments that willow bark tea can make bleeding take longer to stop while discussing the healing properties of herbs with the keeper of Castle Leoch's herb garden.

  • In A Song Of Ice And Fire, maesters (essentially doctors, though they have other duties) commonly prescribe "milk of the poppy" (that is, opium) to anyone suffering from a particularly painful injury.

  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt, Ingrey was given a pain-reliving medication made from poppies (among other things).

Live Action Television

  • There is an episode of Dinosaurs in which the baby gets seriously ill and the family spends lots of money on fancy new medicines. When those fail, they go to a healer who lives in the woods, who cures the baby with moldy bread.

  • In one episode of Queen Of Swords almost everybody in the village gets sick; the Mighty Whitey doctor doses them with a practically magical healing elixer, which he later reveals is made from willow bark.

  • Dr Quinn Medicine Woman was always prescribing willow bark tea.

Real Life

  • When Jacques Cartier and his men where spending the winter in the region which is now Canada, they came down with scurvy until the natives showed them out to use the bark of certain trees to make a brew to cure them. Future research would prove that the tree bark in question contains high levels of Vitamin C.

Community Feedback Replies: 40
  • July 29, 2011
    NoirGrimoir
    • This is done in the Circle Of Magic series even to the point of actually using willow bark tea by name for headaches and fevers and the like. At one point there is an epidemic and very modern steps to quarantine the disease and develop treatments through experimentation are undertaken. Somewhat justified in that magic has allowed people in that universe to be much more knowledgeable about the mechanics of the world.
  • July 29, 2011
    SharleeD
    • In one of the Lord Darcy stories, an elderly herb-woman uses a bread-mold poultice to treat wounds, suggesting she's using penicillin as an antibiotic. Subverted in that it gets her into trouble with the real professional healers, who use magic to treat wounds and can't be having with such superstitious remedies.
  • July 29, 2011
    TonyG
    There is an episode of Dinosaurs in which the baby gets seriously ill and the family spends lots of money on fancy new medicines. When those fail, they go to a healer who lives in the woods, who cures the baby with moldy bread.
  • July 29, 2011
    Arutema
    • The moldy bread poultice is one of Magrat Garlick's specialties in the Discworld series.
  • July 29, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Cadfael is all over this. He was a soldier in the Crusades, and he's an apothecary in his monastic community. Lavender for headaches (The Price of Light), poppy extract, and so on.
  • July 29, 2011
    Xtifr
    I think this should be renamed to reflect the fact that it's something a character does, rather than a description of a thing. Maybe something like Prescribing Willow Bark Tea. Great trope, BTW.
  • July 29, 2011
    NoirGrimoir
  • July 29, 2011
    randomsurfer
    • In the Earths Children series it's mentioned that practically everybody knows about willow bark tea, even non-healers.
    • In one episode of Queen Of Swords almost everybody in the village gets sick; the Mighty Whitey doctor doses them with a practically magical healing elixer, which he later reveals is made from willow bark.
  • July 30, 2011
    Xtifr
    Prescribing The Historic Version? (Gets away from the possibly-too-specific reference to the tea.)

    • In the Garrett PI fantasy/noir series, Garrett prescribes willow-bark tea for himself after nights of heavy drinking.
  • July 30, 2011
    WhiteHaven
    Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, was always prescribing willow bark tea.
  • July 31, 2011
    DaibhidC
    • In Carpe Jugulum, Magrat also makes willow bark tablets. It also gets mentioned in Hogfather:
      Bursar: Willow bark.
      Senior Wrangler: That might work. It's an analgesic.
      Ridcully: Well, possibly, but he might be better putting it in his mouth.
  • July 31, 2011
    randomsurfer
    In one episode of Sliders set In A World where (a) there's a plague going around and (b) nobody ever discovered penicillin, Arturo roots around in the trash for some moldy food in order to create some.
    Rembrandt: Hey, if you're hungry I'll get you something to eat!
  • August 1, 2011
    BOFH
    Literature
    • In Outlander, Claire Beauchamp demonstrates even more knowledge when she comments that willow bark tea can make bleeding take longer to stop while discussing the healing properties of herbs with the keeper of Castle Leoch's herb garden.
  • August 12, 2011
    Xtifr
  • August 12, 2011
    kiapet
    Disney's Pocohontas has Pocohontas give John Smith willow bark for the pain after he is shot in the side.
  • August 12, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    Plenty of examples, add them, and I think it's ready.
  • August 12, 2011
    Xtifr
    Need to decide on the name.
  • August 13, 2011
    kchishol
    In Real Life: When Jacques Cartier and his men where spending the winter in the region which is now Canada, they came down with scurvy until the natives showed them out to use the bark of certain trees to make a brew to cure them. Obviously, the tree bark in question proved a good source of Vitamin C.
  • August 14, 2011
    SomeSortOfTroper
  • August 14, 2011
    TBTabby
    Real life example: Digitalis was being used in folk remedies for centuries before scientists discovered it.
  • August 14, 2011
    IronLion
    In A Song Of Ice And Fire, maesters (essentially doctors, though they have other duties) commonly prescribe "milk of the poppy" (that is, opium) to anyone suffering from a particularly painful injury.
  • August 14, 2011
    yogyog
    Not sure if this counts, but in Asterix In Britain Asterix axedentally ends up introducing tea to Britain.
  • August 14, 2011
    Xtifr
    ^ No, this isn't about tea (another reason we should probably pick a better name). This is about works that deliberately reference old-fashioned versions of what we now know to be good medicine.

    ^^^ I'll add that to the description, as it's more of a description-y thing than an example. Definitely worth including, though.
  • August 15, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    Batman Begins has special blue flowers whose fumes cause those who breathe them to feel their fears more intensely. Earlier in the movie, Ducard tells Bruce to breathe these fumes before training sessions, the idea being that this way Bruce will be used to using said fighting techniques while experiencing intense fear. Later in the movie, Crane develops a drug based on this flower's fumes, and uses it as a means of literally driving his victims insane. It might even make a good page quote:
    Bruce Wayne: So Crane was working for you.
    Henri Ducard: His toxin is derived from the organic compound found in our blue flowers. He was able to weaponize it.
  • August 16, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    Oh, and I too would prefer the title Prescribing The Historic Version over the current title, though I'm hoping we could still find a better title than either...
  • August 16, 2011
    SharleeD
    The blue flowers from Batman Begins wouldn't qualify, as they're a fictional plant with a made-up psychotropic effect rather than something from Real Life that the audience would recognize as an effective drug's herbal source.

    How would "Herbalist's Aspirin" be as a title, BTW?
  • August 17, 2011
    Xtifr
    Sharlee, you're still around? I thought you'd abandoned this. Agree that the blue flowers don't qualify. Not only are they fictional, but the description doesn't exactly make them sound medicinal.

    As for the name, Herbalists Aspirin seems a little too specific. If this were closer to an Omnipresent Trope, I'd worry more about finding a nice, short name, but as it is, I think clarity is probably more important than brevity. Could work as a redirect, though.
  • August 17, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    ^^ Why exactly would fictional plants have to be excluded? I'm working now on a YKTTW called "Otherworldly Counterpart" such that even if something doesn't fit the trope as described, it can still be considered to apply due to its parallels to the trope.
  • August 17, 2011
    LarryD
    In Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt, Ingrey was given a pain-reliving medication made from poppies (among other things).
  • August 17, 2011
    Xtifr
    ^^ Because this is about showing that a primitive healer is knowledgeable by referring to actual historical working medicines! (Also, your example wasn't medicine.)
  • August 21, 2011
    SharleeD
    Okay, I've updated the description with examples and clarification, and changed the name to what seemed like the best blend of description and flavor. The blue flower example is excluded for reasons given above, as is digitalis on the grounds that it's not a specific case and could apply equally to hundreds of natural-extract drugs.

    Sorry I let this slide for a bit, BTW: I was offline for a while.

    Any last suggestions before launch?
  • August 21, 2011
    RobinZimm
    Foxglove shows up several times in the Sixteen Thirty Two series; the first time is in the short story "A Matter of Consultation" from Ring of Fire.
  • August 21, 2011
    labellementeuse
    Nynaeve al'Meara (of the Wheel Of Time) is constantly prescribing willowbark tea, although so do many other characters - it seems to be something pretty much everyone keeps in their handbag, just like aspirin. To stretch a little further, "powdered gheandin blossom" is recommended for heart attacks, which might be a Call A Rabbit A Smeerp version of foxglove.
  • August 21, 2011
    NoirGrimoir
  • August 21, 2011
    RobinZimm
    [up]Ancient Medical Analogue?

    Edit: I mean, I think the current title is fine, but it is a bit synecdochic.
  • August 22, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    The current title makes it seem like it's about willow bark tea in particular. It needs to be changed.

    Anyway, I'm partial to Ancient Analogues To Modern Medicine, but Ancient Medical Analogue is close enough and has the added benefit of being more concise.
  • August 22, 2011
    Generality
    The Wheel Of Time is a hazy case: healers like Nynaeve give a lot of medical advice that is clearly based on actual history, but the ecology of the planet is statedly different in the setting, such that many plants have different effects (for instance, peaches being entirely poisonous rather than just their pits) and new ones existing (like forkroot, a mild soporific).
  • August 23, 2011
    RobinZimm
    Shouldn't examples be sorted by medium?
  • August 25, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    ^ That might depend on how many there are. If there's 4 or 5 each from different media, I don't think there's as much point making a section for each.

    That said, there's more than a dozen examples here, so yeah, it should probably be sorted. Is this trope Up For Grabs?
  • August 26, 2011
    SharleeD
    Generality: Does Nynaeve also prescribe remedies that would be familiar as the sources of legitimate medicines? If so, those instances would qualify for this trope, assuming the remedies have the same effects as the real-life medications derived from them. OTOH, if healers in Wheel of Time are curing cancer with willow bark, then it's a fictional use and wouldn't count.

    Hey, how about "That Old Time Prescription" for a title? Same implications as Ancient Medical Analogue, but it's a song reference too, hence a bit funnier, and there's no risk it'll sound like Neolithic heart surgery or something.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable