An excerpt from Dr Huxley’s Bequest

Dr Huxley’s Bequest by Michelle Cooper

‘You can’t read while you’re walking,’ protested Rosy.

‘Yes, I can,’ said Jaz. ‘I do it all the time. I do it on the way to school each morning.’

‘Don’t you trip over and bump into things?’

‘No. I know the footpath. And my cousin Kirin warns me if there’s anything in the way.’

‘Oh. Okay,’ said Rosy. ‘Well, I’ll be your cousin for now.’ She was feeling quite kindly towards Jaz, after Jaz had rushed to her defence so ferociously. ‘What’s the book about?’

‘Women healers in the Middle Ages.’


‘Wise women,’ corrected Jaz. ‘The old women in the villages who helped deliver babies and made herbal remedies.’

‘Potions and lotions,’ said Rosy, nodding. ‘And magic spells.’

‘Okay, some of them did use magical incantations and charms – but it’s not as though doctors of the time were any better. It says here the physician to King Edward II had a doctorate in medicine from Oxford and he thought the best cure for a toothache was to write “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen” on the patient’s jaw. Or else to touch a caterpillar with a needle, then hold the needle against the sore tooth.’

‘At least he didn’t recommend bloodletting,’ said Rosy.

‘He probably recommended that, as well,’ said Jaz. ‘Actually, doctors had made some progress in that area by then. They weren’t just slicing open veins anymore. They’d started sucking blood out with leeches.’

You might call leeches “progress”,’ said Rosy. ‘I don’t. But go on about women healers.’

‘Well, apart from the village wise women, there were nuns who nursed the sick and wounded. For example, the Hôtel-Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris, began as a hostel near St Christopher’s Church, where the sisters washed, bandaged and fed the sick. When the Black Death arrived in 1348, the sisters refused to abandon their patients, even after all the university-trained doctors had fled and the patients were piled up six in a bed. And one of the most famous women in medieval medicine was Hildegard of Bingen. She was enclosed in a nunnery at the age of eight by her family, and went on to establish her own convent and write several books about healing.’

‘Overhanging branch coming up on your right.’

“Carved ‘Thanks,’ said Jaz, veering left without raising her eyes from the page. ‘Two of Hildegard’s books, Physica and Causae et Curae, described how different sorts of animals, plants, minerals and precious stones could be used in medicine. For instance, she wrote about a type of daisy called tansy: “Tansy is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy.”’

‘So she believed in all the ancient Greek stuff about humours?’

‘And in astrology,’ said Jaz. ‘Oh, and unicorns. Her cure for leprosy included unicorn liver.’

Rosy looked up at the stone archway they were approaching. Among the fantastical creatures carved into the sandstone was a wild-eyed, rearing unicorn. Most of the unicorn’s horn was missing. ‘What about horn of unicorn?’ Rosy said, nudging Jaz and pointing upwards. ‘You reckon Hildegard’s been here?’

‘Her leprosy cure also contained lion heart,’ noted Jaz. They shifted their gazes to the snarling lion on the other side of the archway. There was a jagged scar along his ribs, clumsily patched with mortar.


‘No wonder he looks angry,’ said Rosy. ‘Shame on you, Hildegard! Ripping the hearts out of poor innocent lions! Especially as your cure didn’t even work! Or did it?’ She turned to Jaz.

‘Of course it didn’t work,’ said Jaz. ‘It used ingredients that didn’t exist. She didn’t even do any experiments, she just made up recipes in her head. Hang on – why are we outside the museum? I thought you said we were going to the shop?’

‘We are. It’s on the other side of the quadrangle. But as we’re here, we could pop in and see if Horus the Boy Mummy is –’

‘No,’ said Jaz firmly.

‘I guess he’d be back in his glass case now, anyway,’ said Rosy. ‘Pretending to be harmless. Hi, Naomi!’ They waved at the museum guide, who was sitting at the reception desk with a cup of coffee and a thick book. She glanced up, smiled and waved back, and Rosy and Jaz walked on, out into the brightness of the quadrangle.

‘So, returning to medieval women healers,’ said Rosy. ‘Didn’t any of them become doctors? You said doctors were being trained in universities by then.’

‘Yes, there’s a bit about that here … Sicily was the first place to require doctors to pass an exam and get a medical licence, and that was in 1140. Then other places in Europe started doing the same thing. But women weren’t allowed to attend universities, so they couldn’t qualify as doctors. And in France, doctors also had to take Church vows and women weren’t allowed to do that either, so women really, really couldn’t be doctors there.

‘In 1322, there was a famous trial in Paris, where they charged a woman called Jacqueline Felicie with being an unlicensed physician. At least six witnesses testified at her trial, saying she’d cured them of diseases that licensed doctors hadn’t been able to treat. She also refused to accept payment unless her patient got better, so it’s not as though she was ripping people off. Plus, she pointed out that lots of women patients preferred to be examined by a woman doctor. But the court still found her guilty and made her pay a huge fine.’

‘That is so unfair.’

‘It gets worse. In 1486, a Catholic priest wrote Malleus Maleficarum, an official guide to witch-hunting. He said witches could cause any disease, “even leprosy or epilepsy”, and that “no one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives”. He meant wise women. If a wise woman helped someone give birth and the baby died or was malformed, the wise woman must have sacrificed the child to the devil, so she must be punished. Oh, and he also said sickness was sent by God as a punishment for sins. So if prayers didn’t cure the disease, but the wise woman’s herbal remedies did, it must be because she was in league with the devil. Thousands of women across Europe were interrogated and killed in horrible ways, all thanks to this book.’

Rosy shook her head angrily.

‘There was this English woman,’ Jaz went on, as they climbed the steps to the shop, ‘called Ursula Kemp. She cured her neighbour of lameness, but the neighbour refused to pay the fee and they quarrelled. So when the neighbour’s lameness came back and her baby died, she accused Ursula of witchcraft. At the trial, Ursula’s eight-year-old son claimed his mother had four familiars – a toad, a lamb and a couple of cats – which she fed with beer and cake and her own blood, then sent out at night to kill people. Ursula was tortured until she confessed, and she and several other women in the village were hanged in 1582.’

‘I wish she really had been a witch,’ said Rosy. ‘She could have risen from the grave and wreaked her vengeance on all those cruel, stupid people. Sorry, not you,’ she said to the woman behind the counter, who was looking askance at them. ‘Can I please get one of those printer cartridges? And a colour one, too? Thanks. Hey, Jaz, this cream paper’s nice, isn’t it? Like parchment. We could print out the final draft of our research on that. You think? I’ve got enough money.’

‘Uh-huh,’ said Jaz, still engrossed in her book. ‘There were also the Witches of Warboys in 1593 …’

A student loomed beside them at the counter, juggling a steaming cup of takeaway coffee, a mobile phone and a couple of bulky folders.

‘Hi, Marcus,’ said Rosy. Today his T-shirt read, ‘Microbiologist: Will Work For Ice-Cream’.

‘Oh, look, it’s the detectives,’ he said. ‘Solved your mystery yet?’

‘Our investigation is progressing satisfactorily,’ Rosy said, holding his coffee cup for him as he paid for a travel card.

‘Good to hear,’ he said, retrieving the cup. ‘Thanks. Well, back to the grindstone. See you later, Monsieur Poirot and Miss Marple.’ He waved his free elbow at them and loped out again.

‘Agatha Christie,’ Rosy explained to Jaz, who was looking confused. ‘Obviously, I’m Monsieur Poirot because I can speak French. That makes you Miss Marple. You may look like a sweet little old lady, but you have a mind like a steel trap.’

They went back outside.

‘So, anyway,’ Rosy continued, ‘was it just women who were persecuted as witches?’

‘Mostly women,’ said Jaz. ‘They were supposed to be more susceptible to the devil.’

‘That’s so sexist,’ said Rosy. ‘I mean, what about Faust?’ She gestured at the fountain across the road.

“Mephistopheles ‘Who?’

‘You know, the story about Dr Faust? And his deal with the devil? That stone head over there is supposed to be Mephistopheles. Dad told me it was based on a design by Norman Lindsay, so you’d think the university would take better care of it, ’cause he’s a really famous Australian artist, isn’t he? Look, its poor nose has fallen right off.’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ said Jaz. ‘You mean, that thing that looks like Voldemort, spitting water into the pool?’

‘Well, Mephistopheles was sort of like Voldemort. There was this doctor, see, Dr Faust, and he wanted to know everything. Then Mephistopheles turned up and said the devil would give Faust unlimited knowledge, but in return, Faust had to give his soul to the devil. So Faust said, “Okay. Why not?” and he got everything he’d ever wanted in life, and then a few years later, the devil said, “Right, that’s enough life for you. Now I get your soul for eternity.” And Faust died and went to hell. And you know the spookiest bit?’


‘There really was a Dr Faust. He was a magician and alchemist in Germany, and the Church reckoned he’d done a deal with the devil. He died in a big explosion while he was doing an experiment and all that was left behind were his eyeballs.’


‘It’s true. You can look it up! Dr Faust. Or maybe Dr Faustus. Something like that.’

Jaz continued to look sceptical. ‘And he was an actual alchemist,’ she said. ‘What, you mean turning lead into gold – that sort of thing?’

‘Yes, and finding the Elixir of Life, which cured all diseases and made you immortal if you drank enough of it.’

‘As if that’s even possible.’

‘Anything is possible,’ said Rosy.

Jaz slammed her book shut, in order to concentrate on arguing, then looked around, frowning. ‘Wait, isn’t that the sports field over there? We could have taken a short cut across it to get to the shop. We didn’t need to go all that way past the museum!’

‘We took the scenic route,’ said Rosy serenely.

Read about the real places in Dr Huxley’s Bequest

Excerpted from Dr Huxley’s Bequest: A History of Medicine in Thirteen Objects © Michelle Cooper 2017
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.