Indian Poisons and Medicinal Plants, Part 2
One of the most remarkable plants I met with is the castor oil plant. The Indians of South America, and also those of South Africa, use it as a sovereign remedy for tumours, abscesses, and boils. Four years after leaving the Nasca valley I had an accident, and put my shoulder out. I was bandaged up for six weeks. At the end of this period a large swelling made its appearance under my armpit; so I consulted Dr. Larea, who was accounted the most famous surgeon in Peru. After examining the place, he said, “An operation is necessary. I’ll come round to you in three days’ time, and put it through.” Said I to myself, “He shan’t stick a knife into me if I can avoid it.” Now on my way home I passed through a sugar estate, midway between Lima and Callao, and not far from the racecourse. There, in a valley, I saw bananas and castor oil plants growing wild, so I hopped out of my trap and secured some of the latter. That night, just before going to bed, I took my horse-lance and nicked the swelling, poulticed it with castor oil leaves (which I had previously steeped in tepid water), and a very few drops of lysol. I renewed the poultice three times during the night, and continued the applications frequently during the two following days. Then I drove over to Larea, and showed him the result. He was astonished, and exclaimed, “Why, what have you been doing to it? It is cured!” I told him what I had done, and, also, that the leaves grew within two miles of his office.
His next question was, “And how came you to hear of this wonderful remedy?” I said, “From a witch doctor in Africa, near Port Grosvenor in Pondoland, and also from a Ghilian half-breed who lived in the great Aconcagua valley.”
“Well,” he said, “you have taught me something. This remedy will revolutionize the use of the knife. I consider myself a king in my profession, as you are in yours, but we can all learn.” He wouldn’t rest content till I had driven him over to where I had gathered the leaves. On another occasion I was asked by a Barbadian lady if I could suggest a remedy for an abscess, or tumour, on her instep, that had made her life a misery. After carefully examining it I told her to bathe it with lukewarm water, prick it with a needle till a spot of blood appeared, apply some of the leaves, and, finally, bandage lightly with cotton wool. She followed my instructions to the letter, and was greatly delighted to find, at the end of four days, that all the poison had been drawn out of her foot, and the tumour was beginning to heal. Ten days later, as I was out riding, I met this good lady’s doctor, one of the cleverest in the West Indies. He said, “Get off your horse. I want a word with you. What have you been doing to Mrs. L.’s foot?” I explained; and he, like the Peruvian, insisted on my telling him all I knew about the remedy which, he said, was a most marvellous one. He had been fearful lest Mrs. L. might lose her foot; and because of that had tried to induce her husband to take her away to New York, for change of air.
Let me cite yet another example. The captain of the King of Siam’s yacht—a blood relation of Sir William Gordon Cumming—had a brother who owned a very valuable Norfolk trotting cob of which he was very fond. This animal had sustained an injury to its shoulder, which failed to respond to ordinary treatment. It got so bad that Cumming was afraid it would have to be shot. He sent it to me as a last resort. I happened to be running my horse hospital at the time. When it reached my establishment the poor thing was suffering agonies from a wound the size of a large saucer, occasioned by great quantities of matter forming at the point of its shoulder. I washed the bad place every day with lukewarm water and Lysol, cauterizing the edges wherever the veins looked angry, or the wound inclined to spread. Then I applied a castor oil leaf poultice. This I had to fix in place as best I could, for the wound was most awkwardly situated. By the end of a month the wound began to heal; within a couple it had disappeared altogether; ere another four had passed over our heads, the new skin had become strong enough to bear the weight of a collar.
As the cure was somewhat of an experiment, I charged my friend for the keep of his horse only, viz. 3s. a day. His vet. very much wanted to know how I had wangled the cure. “Ah,” said I, “that’s for others to find out.” Just as if——!