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‘A Most Glorious and Useful Medicine’?

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

Christmas, according to one famous singer, is a time for mistletoe and wine. Some of you may even have hung up some mistletoe, real or artificial, in your homes in the hope of a seasonal kiss.

Over the centuries, mistletoe has been variously used to spread a little love, welcome the New Year, ward off evil spirits and, historically, to treat a wide range of ailments from arthritis to epilepsy.

English apothecary and physician, Sir John Colbatch (1666-1729), was convinced that this “Neglected, but Extraordinary Plant” could be put to better use than to hang it “superstitiously in Houses to drive away evil Spirits”. He prescribed it for all ‘Convulsive Disorders’ and even provided his readers with instructions to make his medicinal ‘Powder of Misletoe’ [sic] at home:

“I hope, for the future, that I shall find every Apothecary’s Shop furnish’d with Misletoe gather’d at the proper Season, and dry’d and powder’d according to Direction”.

However, don’t try this at home… In his Dissertation Concerning Misletoe (1723), Colbatch claims that mistletoe is “capable of doing the greatest Good” and can “never do any Hurt” but it will come as no surprise to learn that most of his remedies and powders had very dubious results – and his ‘Powder of Misletoe’ was no exception. One of his epileptic patients, a 15 year old youth, took the powder morning and night and hardly suffered a fit (well, only “now and then” and those fits he did have were “very favourable ones”) until his demise three years later.

Best to keep it for kissing! But if you’re using mistletoe to decorate your house keep it away from children and animals – it’s poisonous!