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That Old-Time Prescription

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From the more verdant vegetation lower down the slopes, many plants were brought back: wild thyme for fatigue, colt's-foot and safflower for the congested chests and coughs...

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 note , or bread mold as that of penicillinnote , are the usual examples; others, such as poppy extract for a sedative note  or foxglove extract for heart trouble, are more obscure, but still recognizable to viewers who take an interest. Cinchona tree is almost guaranteed to appear if the work is set in tropics, having been the only treatment for malaria for quite a while.

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 Real Life proto-drugs to patients in need. Never mind that a 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 in the proper dosage (foxglove is helpful in small amounts for heart trouble; in large amounts it causes heart failure), 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. Side-effects of the medicine are practically never mentioned, although the same happens with modern medicines.

Can be an example of Viewers Are Geniuses, for the more obscure remedies. Subversion of Artistic License – Pharmacology. Does not apply to fictional medications or recreational stimulants, as use of such drugs does not demonstrate legitimate medical know-how. Use of an unspecified or fictitious cure-all herb falls under Healing Herb.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • A Cruel God Reigns: Whenever Jeremy gets upset, usually to the point that he sobs hysterically or throws up, Ian makes him ginger tea with honey. Ginger is a stomach soother, and ginger tea and ginger ale are common drinks given to individuals who have stomach bugs or nausea.
  • In the first volume of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix, Em Dee, a healer from the comparatively advanced kingdom of Yamatai demonstrates his value to the chief of Nagi's village by curing Nagi's sister of tetanus, which he accomplishes by feeding her mold. He also has a rudimentary knowledge of germ theory, as he is able to determine that the infection, which he calls a "death spirit", entered the body through a cut on her foot.

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

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The 13th Warrior: Ibn requests water to wash his wound, but a knowledgeable Norse woman insists that it will fester if not cleaned with sterile urine. This is a historically accurate belief that survives as an urban legend to this day. Modern tests reveal that urine is not actually sterile and shouldn't be used as a disinfectant, at least when genuinely germ-free water is available. Mind you, at the time the movie is set in, if you don't have any way to boil the water, it's a crapshoot...
  • After the big fight in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Milly uses witch hazel extract to treat the wounds of the brothers.

  • This is done in the Circle of Magic series, in which willow bark tea is used for headaches, 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.
  • Willow tea is also present in the Tortall Universe. Female characters often use it to deal with menstrual cramps.
  • In one of the Lord Darcy stories, set in the present day but in an Alternate History where magic has been developed as a science (meaning, among other things, that medical science has not developed because healing magic makes it unnecessary), two wizards have a conversation about unlicensed healers who do things like treat wounds with moldy bread and heart trouble with "a tea brewed of foxglove". They regard these (real) cures as superstitions since there's nothing in the laws of magic to justify them working.
  • In the Deverry series, Neyvn's paying job (as opposed to his real work as a sorcerer) is a travelling herbologist, gathering, preparing and dispensing herbal remedies.
  • In the Discworld series:
    • The moldy bread poultice is one of Magrat Garlick's specialties. In Carpe Jugulum, Magrat also makes willow bark tablets for headaches. She apprenticed under another herbalist witch who did careful experimentation (and so knew the kind of apple and knife to use in that old story about getting your future husband's name from the peel) and often gets frustrated with Granny's constant use of "sucrose and aqua" as a placebo.
    • Willow bark also gets mentioned for a hangover treatment 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.
    • Tolliver Groat of Going Postal self-medicates with a wide and bizarre variety of folk remedies. Doctor Lawn, who at one point has to treat the man and needs to perform surgery just to get his trousers off, would remark that if years of Groat's home-made poultices hadn't managed to kill the man, nothing could.
  • Brother 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 Earth's Children series it's mentioned that practically everybody knows about willow bark tea, even non-healers.note 
  • In the Garrett, P.I. fantasy/noir series, Dean brews willow-bark tea for Garrett after nights of heavy drinking.
  • In the Outlander series, Claire Beauchamp is a former World War II nurse (and later surgeon) with an amateur interest in botany who travels back to the 18th century. Consequently, she has a broad knowledge of modern medicine and a rudimentary knowledge of herbs. Her knowledge of modern medicine leads her to creative solutions, like packing a wound with Roquefort cheese (which contains Penicillin) or making homemade ether to use as anesthesia. However, she herself notes that her higher-than-average patient success rate is in part due to her rigorous hygiene standards, something that would be anachronistic if she weren't from the 20th century.
  • 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. note  They're also known to dispense tansy tea as an abortifacient upon request. Zigzagged as many of them are also big believers in leeching (though leeches have been found to be helpful by draining excess blood from reattached body parts whose veins aren't fully healed yet). Maggots are also used to clean rotting or dead tissue from wounds, and boiling wine is used to disinfect them before bandaging.
    • The miracle that resurrects the drowned Ironborn ("What is dead may never die") is identifiable as CPR. Aeron Greyjoy, a priest of the Drowned Men, is believed to have the favour of the Drowned God because his resurrections have never failed.
  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt, Ingrey was given a pain-relieving medication made from poppies (among other things).
  • In the Dragaera novels, bread mold is among the assorted herbs kept in Vlad Taltos's witchcraft supply pouch, presumably for use on wounds. In Athyra, some of the treatments mentioned by Master Wag are also this trope.
  • Willow bark tea shows up in the first Arrows novel. There's also a reference in the Collegium Chronicles to Bear's attempts to preserve bread mold for wound treatment, instead of shipping moldy bread out from Healer's Collegium and hoping the wrong type of mold doesn't develop. He also prescribes and administers leeches properly.
    • Not a prescription, but Closer To Home shows conclusively that Valdemaran first aid includes CPR training.
    • The Last Herald-Mage Trilogy includes a reference to vaccination (specifically, the use of needles dipped in cowpox sores to prevent what is probably smallpox).
  • The King Killer Chronicle has relatively well-researched medicine, in particular at the University, some of which, like the metallurgy and other science-y bits, might even be over the head of a general reader. That being said, the main character spends a lot of time chewing willow bark, due to getting his butt kicked a lot and never having enough money for more pure medicine.
  • In the Warrior Cats series, medicine cats use remedies like poppy seeds as a sedative. The authors took much of the medicine cats' herblore from a quite famous Real Life book, The Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpeper.
  • Averted in The Mysterious Island: The heroes are in dire need of quinine, but there are no cinchona trees on the island (despite it having everything else they need). It causes Nemo to finally abandon the pretense of his aid being coincidence or supernatural when he leaves a helpfully labeled box of the stuff inside their home.
  • 1632: One story in the first Ring of Fire anthology features a herbalist who's been secretly dosing her husband with foxglove extract to keep a heart issue under control.
  • In The Cold Moons, badgers use both vague "herbs" and more concrete herbal remedies, such as dandelion roots and foxgloves.
  • Nynaeve, a trained herbalist in The Wheel of Time series, frequently prescribes willowbark tincture for headaches, and several other recognizable real-world remedies, including "heartleaf tea" as a contraceptive, a reference to silphium, a now-extinct plant once used for the same purpose. The existence of this plant and other cues indicate that some plants in the Wheel of Time world are different than ours, which in turn justifies the idea that Nynaeve's medicines are more effective than what a real medieval healer would have been able to manage.
  • The Anubis Gates has a body-surfing villain drinking poison right before jumping into a new body. When he does this to Brendan Doyle, the victim, realizing he's poisoned, devours several pieces of fireplace charcoal, thinking to himself that activated charcoal is used to treat strychnine poisoning. It works, and he survives.
  • Inverted in The Witcher novels when Geralt consumes potions containing well-known poisons such as wolfsbane to illustrate how resistant to toxins Witchers are.
  • Mouldy bread with cobwebs note  poultice is the standard wound treatment in the entirety of Sienkiewicz Trilogy, even for the wounds that don't seem to be infected.

    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.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Milk of the poppy (that is, opium) is regularly prescribed for painful injuries.
    • Resident Mad Scientist Qyburn treats the Mountain, who has been poisoned and is comatose, with something that looks distressingly like pre-industrial dialysis, rigged up halfway between Bamboo Technology and Bio Punk.
  • 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 elixir, which he later reveals is made from willow bark.
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman often prescribes willow bark tea.
    • She is also seen prescribing digitalis to a woman for a heart murmur and uses several things given to her by the Native Americans, much to the town's distrust and horror.
  • Set up and mercilessly subverted in the episode "Heat Wave" of Tom Fontana's Borgia, where fever seizes several characters in 1492 Rome:
    • We first see the awful, counterproductive Christian European medicine of the time at work, making the sick sleep in closed chambers (in the middle of the torrid Italian summer!), not stitching open wounds, etc.
    • We then see an apparently more professional Jewish doctor, doing something that the modern audience can recognize as actual medical practice: a blood transfusion. However, his patient does not need a transfusion, and the reason it is being applied is also because of Medieval junk medicine, humor balance theory. Not to mention that as a Medieval practitioner the doctor knows nothing about blood type compatibility. This transfusion does nothing to the (adult) patient and causes the death of the three children that were drained to give him younger, more vigorous blood.
    • One character finally goes to fetch a witch, who takes her time to denounce the Church's persecution against her guild, claiming that all they do is cure people with completely natural remedies. Her remedy for the feverish is covering them in pig shit, again under the "humor balance" theory of Medieval junk medicine, and she notes that she herself is healthy because she bathes often in it. Ironically, she is the one to achieve the highest curative rate in the episode (two of her three patients survive), but it's debatable if her efforts had any relation with that.
  • In the Sliders episode "Fever" they land on a world where an epidemic is going on, with that world's Quinn being Patient Zero. The sliders learn that that world had never discovered penicillin, so Arturo goes rooting around a garbage can for some moldy bread, which disgusts Rembrandt. "If you're hungry I'll get you something to eat!"
  • The Frankenstein Chronicles zig-zags this. The main character suffers from syphilis, and a healer considered to be a quack by the medical establishment gives him a cure derived from bread mold. His symptoms seem to get worse afterward, suggesting it might be that other thing that's derived from bread mold, but ultimately it's neither penicillin nor ergot, it's fetal stem cells, gathered and administered in a way that's still in keeping with the trope.
  • The Musketeers features a 17th century doctor who always boils his (steel and silver) tools before performing surgery because he finds it reduces the rate of infection afterwards. "I believe it's a gift from God."
  • The Regime: At Corporal Zubak's suggestion, Chancellor Vernham has bowls of steaming potatoes placed all over the Palace. She raves about the healing effects of potato steam, but others complain that the Palace now smells like an "Irish whorehouse". She gets so obsessed with folk remedies (mustard rubs, black radish, etc.) that she forbids anything resembling Western medicine. This presents a problem for the Palace manager, as her son requires pills to prevent his seizures.

  • Referred to in The White Stripes' "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" from Elephant (Album)
    Well strip the bark right off a tree
    And just hand it this way
    Don't even need a drink of water
    To make the headache go away.

     Video Games 
  • In The Forgotten City, one of the side-quests involves locating the city's apothecary in order to learn her remedy for rheumatism to help another character. The remedy turns out to be willow bark.
  • West of Loathing's medicines, among outlandish snake oil concoctions, includes laudanum, a setting-appropriate cocktail of opium and alcohol. Despite the game's Lemony Narrator insisting that it has no side effects, at least one NPC taking it for trauma has become visibly addicted and is only barely functional without his "medicine".
  • In Stardew Valley, eating ginger or drinking ginger ale will cure the "Nausea" status inflicted by Putrid Ghosts (which prevents using other consumables). Birdie on Ginger Island mentions this once you've completed her Chain of Deals, but ginger is also commonly used for nausea in real life. George also uses hot peppers to treat his bad knees; capsaicin from hot peppers is a known anesthetic commonly used for arthritis.

  • In Destroyer of Light, pennyroyal is used for an abortion. It is not the safest herb for this purpose there is, but that is justified by the fact that the protagonist is a goddess - which means the poison won't affect her the way it would a human.
  • In Tales of the Questor, herbal remedies make frequent appearances. For fear of falling into a primitive human healer's less than ept hands He stockpiles several for his expedition, including willow bark, bread mould pills, bismuth, "stomach soda" and alcohol for cleansing wounds.
    • In a later page, he is lectured (correctly) that coriander is a useful spice for purging metal poisons from the body. According to the notes of Ennias Longscript, a human explorer, this was apparently discovered as a consequence of the downfall of Silver Springs, a racconan community that succumbed to toxic levels of bauxite (aluminium ore) in their drinking water and topsoil. The racconan healers developed a treatment regimen that saved the victims, consisting largely of foods that aided the body in purging itself of excess metals such as citrus, legumes, eggs, butter, garlic, onions... in particular a heavily seasoned "bean porridge" that Ennias reveals is something of an acquired taste, to say the least.
    • It is also revealed in Ennias' notes that they bathe and handwash frequently. Unsurprising for a race based on raccoons, but they also use ceremonial hand-washing basins and mix the water with "perfumes and distilled essence of spirits" (alcohol) to "kill humours of illness."
    • They also grow hemp as a major agricultural crop for its many uses, including medicinal.
  • When Digger is shot, her surgery and recovery take weeks and she gets temporarily addicted to poppy milk. Poppies are one of the better-known sources of opium, so the Hag was presumably using it as a painkiller.