A newspaper article published in the late nineteenth century sparked public interest in a peculiar supposed cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatism is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks itself, thus causing inflammation, pain, joint deformity, bone erosion, and possible organ damage. There is no cure but medical professionals have been successful in helping patients to manage it. This since abandoned “cure” involved taking a long soak, but their experience was nothing like a trip to the spa. In fact, I imagine the whole ordeal was rather hot, foul-smelling, and gut-churning. People were lining up to take a 20 hour blubber bath in the decaying corpses of whales. 

When a whale is killed and towed ashore and while the interior of the carcass still retains a little warmth a hole is cut through one side of the body sufficiently large to admit the patient, the lower part of whose body from the feet to the loins should sink in the whale’s intestines, leaving the head, of course, outside the aperture. The latter is closed up as closely as possible, otherwise the patient would not be able to breathe through the volume of animoniacal gases which would escape from every opening left uncovered.’-Courtesy of Australia National Maritime Museum

According to newspaper articles from the time, the sea-side town of Eden in Australia became known for their whale treatments. Whalers would drag dead whales onto the shore where the body was cut into to make a hole. A person then would slip down into the hole, leaving only their neck and head exposed to the air. It was said that one 20-30 hour soak had the ability to heal the body for up to 12 months. Rumor has it that this method was accidentally discovered when a drunk man came upon a whale carcass on the beach while walking with a group of friends. He climbed into the body and did not emerge for a few hours. Upon exiting the whale, the man claimed that all his pain caused by his rheumatism had left him. Some medical professionals believed that the blubber and flesh served as some sort of poultice for the entire body. 

Although this story is plausible, many people now believe that the whale cure originated with the local Yuin people of the area. Whale remains were an important part of their culture and aboriginal rock carvings show depictions of whale baths for healing. The whale cure fell out of popularity by the 1920s thanks to a decline in whaling activities and a change of public sentiment. The legitimacy of the healing properties of this cure are unknown and it has receded into obscura. 

If that doesn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time

N.F.

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