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The Magic of Science–Witches and Medicine


There I was, huddled over a pot of boiling water with three other 12-­‐year-­‐old girls next to me, all of us craning our necks to read the next step in the spell book. I was holding the catnip stolen from my friend Sophie’s sweet cat Felix, feeling slightly guilty of depriving him of one of his few hedonistic pleasures. Alex had just  sprinkled in the powdered mistletoe procured by a bemused older sibling from the only Wicca store in town, and we were to stir the pot for exactly six minutes before adding the catnip. We all four waited, eyeing the stove clock intensely, awkward in our pre-­‐teen bodies. I was all legs and huge feet, a bowl cut and overalls ending just an inch shy of my ankles. Some of us were tall and lanky, others short and squat, and only Alex had begun to fill out, her clothes hugging her body with hints of a figure. We were all jealous of her, and I often wondered whether she’d want to be in our coven for much longer. The six minutes up, we added in the catnip and stirred the pot once more. Having argued over the flavoring, we settled on cacao powder and stirred in a spoonful. Finally, the good luck potion was ready. Each of us carefully poured some into a vial and stoppered it tightly. “Think this will actually help us with Ms. Iglesias’s test?” someone asked.  Now, not to make too big a deal of this-­‐ but I aced that test. In all fairness, getting A’s was a common occurrence for me as a middle school nerd but nevertheless I was hooked. I was a witch-­‐ and a successful one to boot. The good luck potion was empirical proof of what in my opinion had been a burgeoning career in the Wiccan arts, begun at age 4 after a particularly memorable spat with my parents. After an unjust imprisonment in my room for some negligible offense, I wrote my first hex:

Picture of a Note Written by a Four Year old that says, "Jinks Ma Mama Jinks Da Dada Don Tolk"

Figure 1: Author, Age 4, Hex #1

When they found it under their pillow later that night, they were speechless. I knew then that I was in business.

Picture of Six Year Old Girl Dressed Up as a Witch

Figure 2: Author, Age 6, Witch

My successful first hex behind me, I branched into more complex spells: homework hexes, spells for wayward siblings, even astral projection to manage troublesome bullies. This persistent belief in my witchy powers had a number of consequences: One-­‐ I was a pretty weird kid. Two-­‐ that being lumped into “weird kid” social circles meant that I also became a default nerd and divided my time between spell books, comics, and homemade science experiments. Over time, a dichotomy developed between my geek persona and my witch side: although I deeply believed in the power of witchcraft and felt compelled by the community of strong women that made up Wiccan subculture, the tug of logical Empiricism was also pretty persuasive.

Science and witchcraft have long been presented as dichotomous concepts. The history of modern medicine is directly rooted in the witch-­‐hunts of medieval Europe and the convergence of Enlightenment ideology, which together sought to redefine women’s roles in both domestic and public spheres1. Understanding witchcraft and its place in science requires both a thorough understanding of the history and socio-­‐ political currents that defined witchcraft, and the scientific processes that underpin it. To say that witchcraft as a whole is a science is indeed laughable, but I would argue as a self-­‐identified feminist scientist witch that many witches are scientists, and vice versa. Barbara Ehrenreich writes,

 “Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists of western history. They were abortionists, nurses and counselors. They were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.” -­‐Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, CUNY Feminist Press, 1973

This paper will explore that heritage, first by offering a succinct history of traditional folk medicine and witchcraft in medieval Europe and by analyzing the emergence of modern medicine and the accompanying witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries. The chemical properties of various herbs and plants used as traditional folk remedies will be analyzed, along with a discussion of witchcraft’s impact on modern medicine.

 I. Women in Power: Witchcraft in Service of Public Health

The period specifically cited as the time of the witch hunt craze is generally accepted to have started in the mid-­‐14th century and lasted through the early 18th century, with the bulk of witch trials and killings occurring during the period of 1500-­‐17002. The historical documentation of the numbers of witches interrogated and killed during this time period is spotty at best, and is compounded by the challenges of defining geographical scope. For the purposes of this paper, I will be examining the Witch Hunt in the context of the shift from feudalism to nation states in Western Europe from 1450-­‐1750, with a specific reference to England, France, and Germany.

This period in particular marks the culmination of profound social and economic shifts from scattered feudal villages and fiefdoms to increasingly centralized nations with growing administrative power and a rise in capitalist production. Historically, small European villages not only housed large areas of common land used by working class and poor people to provide land for shelter and agriculture, but frequently each village hosted a local “witch”-­‐ a woman who performed the role of medic, midwife, healer, and counselor to the local peasants3. With the growth of universities and professional schools in the 1300s, there became an increasing divide between the care received by the wealthy, who sought treatment from predominantly male physicians; and the poor, who primarily relied on local women healers and herbal remedies. Midwifery in particular was the sphere of women: male physicians often abstained from childbirth, leaving the reproductive labor of both childbirth and child rearing to women. It can be argued that women healers provided the bulk of public health services to poor and working-­‐class Europeans at the time. In fact, Minkowski states, “European female healers of the Middle Ages performed a service virtually indistinguishable from the one so zealously cherished and aggressively defended by academically trained male physicians.4” Although much of the knowledge of women healers and witches was transmitted orally, many remedies relied not on anatomical text but on folk and herbal remedies passed down from generations. Several of the most important herbs in European witchcraft will be discussed below, along with their historical uses and current practical application in the field of medicine.

II. The Chemistry of Witchcraft

This section will examine the chemical properties of a number of common herbal remedies used by women folk healers in medieval Europe, and for some will discuss their current use in modern medicine. It is by no means a thorough investigation of the breadth of folk remedies used by various communities throughout Western Europe in Middle Ages, but instead highlights several of the most commonly used herbs, their chemical properties, and their cultural and historical significance.

I. Basil, Ocimum basilicum
aka St.-Joseph’s-wort

History and Traditional Uses: Called “l’herbe royale” (the royal herb) by the French, basil was considered to be an aphrodisiac and was often included in love potions. In Italy, young women gifted basil leaves to their suitors in order to encourage fidelity, while in Medieval Europe basil leaves were placed under women’s pillows in order to provide proof of chastity5. Traditionally, basil was also distilled into an essential oil-­‐ a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. This distilled oil was used in the treatment of headaches, coughs, diarrhea, constipation, warts, worms, and kidney malfunctions.

Chemical Properties: Although there are hundreds of varieties of the basil plant, sweet basil or ocimum basilicum was most commonly used in European medieval folk remedies. The chemical makeup of sweet basil contains linalool as the most abundant component (56.7–60.6%.)6 Linalool, also known as linalyl alcohol, is an alcohol known by the IUPAC name 3,7-­‐dimethyl-­‐1, 6-­‐Chemical Structure of linalyl alcoholoctadien-­‐3-­‐ ol. Because it the 3rd carbon has 4 different R groups attached to it, it is a chiral carbon and as such displays stereochemistry: there are two different enantiomers of linalool. S-­‐Linalool is found in plants such as lavender, and the enantiomer found in sweet basil is R-­‐Linalool.

Current Use in Medicine: Current research suggests that O. basilicum essential oil has antibacterial properties, due to their ability to form phenolic compounds that can attack gram-­‐negative bacteria, causing damage to cells walls that results in ATP and K+ leakage and cell death.7 The applications of basil’s antibacterial properties have led to further research in its role in both medicine and in food preservation.

II. Hemlock, Conium maculatum
a.k.a. Deadly Hemlock, Poison Hemlock, Devil’s Porridge

History and Traditional Use: British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote of hemlock, “It may safely be applied to inflammations, tumors, and swellings in any part of the body (save the privy parts): and to creeping ulcers that arise of hot sharp humors, by cooling and repelling the heat; the leaves bruised and laid to the brow or forehead are good for their eyes that are red and swollen.8” Hemlock was also used to treat neurological conditions like epilepsy and other neurological conditions. In addition to its anti-­‐inflammatory and anti-­‐epileptic uses, hemlock was considered a powerful herb in consecration and was often used a funereal herb. Shrouded in myth, hemlock is of course best known as a poison, and many women were accused of using hemlock as a “witch’s poison” against their enemies. Hemlock was also often used in conjunction with other alkaloids such as Deadly Nightshade in “flying ointments,” salves used to induce hallucinogenic experiences (more information below.)

Chemical Properties: Hemlock is an alkaloid, a type of nitrogenous organic compound of plant origin that has a physiological impact on humans. The predominant alkaloid present in hemlock is coniine, aChemical structure of coniine neurotoxic molecule that is structurally similar to nicotine and as such can bind to nicotinic cholinergic receptors of both neurons and skeletal muscles. The skeletal muscle system relies on acetylcholine uptake by nicotinic cholinergic receptors, and coniine blocks this process and therefore results in muscular paralysis that eventually reaches the diaphragm, impeding the flow of oxygenation and respiration and resulting in death. The active form of coniine, which has two enantiomers due to a chiral carbon in the second position, has the IUPAC name (2R)-­‐2-­‐propylpiperidine. It is highly soluble in alcohol and exhibits a deep purple color in aqueous solution and so was commonly mixed with red wine when used as a poison to conceal its presence.

Current Use in Medicine: Although some practitioners of natural and herbal medicines use hemlock, there is limited literature available on current practical application of hemlock or its isolated alkaloid coniine. Because of its high level of toxicity, the purported therapeutic effects of hemlock pale comparison to the lethality of the alkaloid, which can occur even in small doses.

III. Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna
a.k.a. Belladona

History and Traditional Use: Atropa belladonna is a member of the nightshade family, which includes potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. The archetypal image of the witch as flying through the air on a broomstick is often dismissed as hyperbolic fantasy created during the mass trials of witches during the 1500s and 1600s, but in reality is based upon the very real practice of applying “flying ointments” to the skin in the form of a salve made from psychotropic plant compounds. Deadly nightshade was usually combined with a poisonous alkaloid such as hemlock to create an ointment that was applied to the skin just under the armpits or on the genitalia, where it was quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. This “flying ointment” produced hallucinations whereby women accused of witchcraft claimed to meet spirits or demons in a ritual known as Sabbat. Although considered poisonous, “for those bold enough to use it as an internal medicine”9 there are reports that Atropa belladonna was used for medicinal purposes ranging from inflammation of the viscera to topical treatment of cancerous growths. The name Bella Dona actually comes from the Italian for “beautiful woman,” as it was used for cosmetic purposes to dilate the pupils.

Chemical Properties: Deadly Nightshade contains two principle alkaloids, atropine and hyoscine (scopolamine).

Chemical structure of atropine


Chemical structure of hyoscine



Hyoscine is structurally similar to acetylcholine (Ach) and acts on the central nervous system by binding to muscarinic cholinergic receptors to prevent uptake of ACh-­‐ it is classified as an anticholinergic alkaloid.  The IUPAC name is far beyond the scope of this course, and is listed as: (–)-­‐(S)-­‐3-­‐Hydroxy-­‐2-­‐phenylpropionic acid (1R,2R,4S,7S,9S)-­‐9-­‐methyl-­‐3-­‐oxa-­‐9-­‐azatricyclo[,4]non-­‐7-­‐yl ester10. Atropine is actually a mixture of two enantiomers of a derivative of hyoscine known as hyoscyamine, and its IUPAC name is listed as: (RS)-­‐(8-­‐Methyl-­‐8-­‐ azabicyclo[3.2.1]oct-­‐3-­‐yl) 3-­‐hydroxy-­‐2-­‐phenylpropanoate11. It also exhibits anticholinergic properties and has significant clinical application, further discussed below. Both Atropine and Hyoscine contain nitrogenous and aromatic rings connected via an ester linkage, which is hydrolyzed when placed in acidic conditions.

Current Use in Medicine: Hyoscine is commonly used as an antiemetic to treat motion sickness or nausea and vomiting after anesthesia, and is usually applied via a transdermal patch. It acts by decreasing parasympathetic activity in the GI tract, by binding to muscaric cholinergic receptors and preventing uptake of Ach in the synaptic cleft. Atropine has been shown to have significant clinical benefits, and is the primary treatment for organophosphate poisoning. Organophosphate poisoning targets the enzyme that breaks down ACh, acetylcholinesterase, thus leaving excess ACh in the synaptic cleft for prolonged periods of time and preventing muscles from relaxing. As muscles are continually stimulated to contract, organs, glands and skeletal muscles cannot relax and thus secrete excessively, and can be fatal.

Atropine targets this mechanism by binding to muscarinic receptors, allowing muscles to relax. In addition to nerve gas treatment, atropine is also used to treat bradycardia and second-­‐degree heart blocks, as it decreases the activity of the parasympathetic system and thus increases the firing rate of the SA and AV nodes, the pacemaker cells of the heart. Sadly, there have been no empirically recorded cases of human flight resulting from Atropa belladonna ingestion, but its clinical applications are undeniable.

IV. Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea
a.k.a. Fairy’s glove, Bloody Glove, Folk’s Glove

History and Traditional Use: Though Scottish physician William Withering is credited with the discovery of Foxglove and its clinical applications, the plant had been in use by traditional healers for centuries prior to his work12. The lore of Withering’s discovery is well-­‐known: “In 1775 he was asked about a secret preparation which  an old woman of Shropshire had long used as a treatment for dropsy, often making cures after the more regular practitioners had failed13.” Dropsy, a term used to refer to edema, has long been associated with congestive heart failure resulting from a backup of blood in the venous system, as the heart is unable to adequately pump. In addition to its use in treating dropsy foxglove was also traditionally used a remedy for epilepsy. Foxglove was used in witchcraft as a herb for communing with fairies, and for breaking fairy enchantments.

Chemical Properties: The active principles of foxglove are glucosides, a type of glycoside derived from glucose that is commonly found in plants. The three most important components of Digitalius purpurea are listed below:

 Chemical structure of digitoxigenin  Chemical structure of digoxigenin  Chemical structure of gitoxigenin

These glucosides all exhibit alpha-­‐glycosidic linkages, with the non-­‐sugar component a steroid belonging to the lipid class of molecules. These steroidal molecules are cardiac glucosides that are hydrophobic and lipid-­‐soluble, and can therefore travel through the plasma membrane. Although the mechanism of action is not fully understood, digitoxin (the primary derivative of Digitalis purpurea) inhibits the enzyme sodium potassium ATPase in cardiac muscle cells, which decreases intercellular K+ levels and raises sodium levels.

Current Uses in Medicine: Digitalis has been cited as “one of the most valuable drugs in the entire pharmacopoeia14” and is used in the treatment of a number of cardiac conditions with great success. Although the mechanism of action is still not fully known, it is hypothesized that increases in sodium levels in myocardial cells of the heart increases contractile force without requiring an increased supply of oxygen15. It has been used to successfully treat patients with atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure.

III. The Witch Trials & the Rise of Modern Medicine

Although the historical record is not clear, the most commonly cited numbers of witches killed during the peak of the Witch Trials-­‐ from 1500 to 1650-­‐ ranges from 60,000 to several hundred thousand16. Although both men and women could be tried for heresy and some men were indeed condemned as witches, the Witch Trials represent a specific departure from previous attacks on heretics in that witchcraft was considered a uniquely female crime. The vast majority of witches were accused of crimes that fell under three main categories: sexual lewdness, crimes of poverty (often theft, madness, or begging), and practicing medicine without a license17.

In particular, the targeting of women folk healers raises a number of interesting questions about the social and economic roots of the Witch Trials. Witches were thus targeted for having magical powers affecting
health – of harming, but also of healing. Of particular concern to authorities were women who practiced midwifery and abortion, whose “crimes of reproduction” were channeled into a mass hysteria that portrayed witches as women who stole and ate children. Herbal and traditional remedies were dismissed as unsound and unscientific, and Enlightenment ideology and Cartesian divisions between the body/mind and man/nature were used to demonize the organic, nature-­‐based healing practices of witches.

Even though the advent of modern medicine coincides with the rise of the Witch-­‐hunts in the 15th and 16th centuries, the displacement of witches and folk healers by modern physicians was not the root cause of the Witch Trials. Instead Enlightenment ideology and the dismissal of traditional healing as unscientific provided a philosophical and political underpinning for accusations of witchcraft and heresy. The increased regulation of the field of medicine by the state, most notably beginning with Henry VII’s founding of “The Physicians” in 151818, also sought to limit entry into schools of medicine to men of upper-­‐class backgrounds, severely limiting women’s abilities to receive medical training. This new trend in control and increased legislation of medical practices served largely to constrict women’s roles in the field: indeed, even midwifery was increasingly limited to women healers and by the 18th century the field of obstetrics was dominated solely by male physicians19.


Between December 26th, 2016 and January 4th, 2017 a conference was hosted by the indigenous Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico entitled: “Las Consciencas de la Humanidad,” which literally translates into “The ConScience of Humanity.” The central question of the conference is whether it is possible to create a science that is truly human. It seeks to unpack the notion of science as an apolitical and ahistorical force and instead root it in an understanding of its role both as a source of oppression and of liberation. Journalist Sophie Duncan writes, “Las ConCiencias defied the notion of expertise, with scientists and indigenous activists interacting with each other as peers.20” As I move forward with a career in medicine I know that I am drawing on two strong traditions: that of witches who have served as healers for generations, and that of scientists rooted in evidence-­‐based practices. Perhaps these two traditions are more intertwined than they seem at first glance. For now, I will continue to proudly wear my role as witch and scientist-­‐ and though I have moved beyond brewing potions to ace science tests, I’m not beyond casting a hex or two when needed.


1 Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, p.187

2 Federici, p.174

3 Minkowski,“Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History,” p.289

4 Mikoswki, p.289

5 Arrowsmith, Nancy. Essential Herbal Wisdom, p. 32

6 Joshi, “The Chemical Composition and Antibacterial Activity of the essential oil of O. Bacillicum,” Table 1.

7 Joshi, Table 3.

8 Culpeper, The Complete Herbal: Hemlock

9 Pultney, “A Brief Botanical and Medical History of the Solanum Lethale, Bella-­‐ Donna, or Deadly Nightshade, by Mr. Richard Pultney. Communicated by Mr. William Watson,” p.68


11­‐and-­‐ Physical-­‐Properties

12 Faddis, “Digitalis,” p. 1331

13 Faddis, “Digitalis,” p. 1330

14 Faddis, p. 1331

15 British Medical Journal, “Today’s Drugs: Digitalis And The Cardiac Glycosides, ” p. 744

16 Federici, p. 115

17 Federici, p. 118

18 Minkowski, p. 290

19 Minkowski, p. 293

20 Duncan, “Zapatistas Reimagine Science as Tool of Resistance”, ¶ 1


Arrowsmith, Nancy. Essential Herbal Wisdom: A Complete Exploration of 50 Remarkable Herbs.  New York: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

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Chemspider. Hyoscine.­‐ Structure.10194106.html

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Duncan, Sophie. “Zapatistas Reimagine Science as Tool of Resistance.”­‐reimagine-­‐science-­‐as-­‐tool-­‐of-­‐ resistance/ Accessed: 15-­‐04-­‐2017

Ehrenreich, Barbara & English, Deirdre. “Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers.” CUNY Feminist Press, 1973. Retrieved from­‐ barbara/witches.htm/ Accessed: 09-­‐04-­‐2017

Faddis, M. (1938). Digitalis. The American Journal of Nursing, 38(12), 1331-­‐1337. doi:10.2307/3413884

Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York : London: Autonomedia ; Pluto, 2003.

Harper, C. (1977). The Witches’ Flying-­‐Ointment. Folklore, 88(1), 105-­‐106. Retrieved from

Joshi, RK. “Chemical composition and antimicrobial activity of the essential oil of Ocimum basilicum L. (sweet basil) from Western Ghats of North West Karnataka, India.” Ancient Science of Life. 2014;33(3):151-­‐156. doi:10.4103/0257-­‐ 7941.144618.

Mies, Maria. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. London: Zed Books, 1986. Print.

Minkowski W. “Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History”. American Journal Of Public Health, February 1992;82(2):288-­‐295. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 11, 2017.

PubChem. Atropine.­‐and-­‐ Physical-­‐Properties

Pultney, R., & Watson, W. (1757). “A Brief Botanical and Medical History of the Solanum Lethale, Bella-­‐Donna, or Deadly Nightshade, by Mr. Richard Pultney. Communicated by Mr. William Watson.” F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions (1683-­‐ 1775), 50, 62-­‐88. Retrieved from

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