The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

Syrup jars for earthworm oil

Blue and white ceramic jar with blue decoration of peacocks and a basket of fruit, inscribed Lumbricor
Syrup jar for oil of earthworms, (circa 1680-1730). Made in Delft, Netherlands. Collection of the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford.
Juicy earthworms for making worm syrup

Today, I’ve got just the thing you’ve always wanted: a collection of bespoke containers for holding all the earthworm syrup you have laying around!

From the 16th to 19th centuries, the oil of earthworms was a popular treatment for a wide variety of ailments, from arthritis to gunshot wounds. This foul-sounding tonic was brewed up by apothecaries across Europe, who would store it in these fancy syrup jars.

Each jar has a shortened version of the words OLEUM LUMBRICORUM — Latin for ‘oil of earthworms’ — painted boldly on the front. This labeling was important so the apothecary didn’t mix up your treatment with, say, the oil of puppy dogs or the oil of sperm whale heads (both real things!).

What’s that? You’re fresh out of earthworm oil? No worries, scroll down to read some authentic recipes for making your own earthworm oil, and see more examples of these strange and fascinating worm syrup jars.

Syrup jar for oil of earthworms, with image of Saint Ignatius painted above words OL.LUBRI
Syrup jar for oil of earthworms, 1731-1770. Made in Castelli, Italy. Collection of the Science Museum, London. The figure depicted on the front is Saint Ignatius, one of the founders of the Jesuits. As a young man, Ignatius’ leg was shattered by a cannonball during the 1521 Battle of Pamplona, and he underwent a spiritual conversion while recovering from the brutal leg surgery that saved him.
Glass apothecary jar for holding earthworm salts, with painted polychrome decoration of acanthus leaves, red crown, wheel, sword, cherub and moor
Apothecary jar for volatile salts of earthworm, circa 1750. Moor Apothecary in Mainz, Germany. Collection of the Smithsonian Museum.

A Renaissance earthworm oil recipe

One of oldest recipe for earthworm oil that I’ve found was written by a French apothecary named Jean Liebault (1535-1596) in the late 16th century:

Take a half measure of earthworms, wash them diligently in white wine, then cook them in two measures of olive oil and a bit of red wine. When the wine is consumed, pour off and squeeze out the entirety and save the oil. It would be even better to put other worms in this oil and leave them there as long as the oil lasts.

Liebault recommends using the oil for joint paint and “comforting cold nerves.” Perfect for filling up all these earthworm syrup jars!

(Recipe was translated by Julianne Douglas, of the great blog Writing the Renaissance.)

Porcelain vase with blue decorative design around words 'Ol. Lumbricum.' and coiled snake handles
Porcelain vase for oil of earthworms, made in Italy, 17th century. Collection of the Musee de la Faience, in Nevers, France. The handles are in the shape of coiled snakes — a reference to the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek deity of medicine and healing.

Worms and puppies for gunshot wounds

Got a gunshot wound that won’t heal? Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) has a disgusting solution for you.

Paré was a French barber-surgeon and one of the fathers of modern surgery, who spent much of his career in the military treating soldiers with devastating gunshot injuries. The standard treatment of his day was to cauterize gunshot wounds with boiling oil mixed with treacle — which was both excruciatingly painful and largely ineffective. Paré became convinced there must be a better way.

After some moderately successful experiments treating gunshot wounds with a gentle liniment after surgery, Paré went in search for the perfect recipe for a healing balm. In the end, he spent over two years wooing a master surgeon in Turin, Italy, just to procure his top-secret worm syrup recipe:

Boil in oil of lilies, young whelps just born and earthworms. Prepare with Venetian turpentine.

(Whelps = puppies. Yikes.) Paré would apply the worm and puppy oil to the gunshot wound as a balm, with the hopes of providing pain relief while preventing gangrene and infection.

Cute puppy to distract you from the horror of this recipe.

Crispy worms with a warning

Recipes for earthworm oil still appear in pharmacology texts through the 18th and 19th centuries, but some apothecaries began to grow dubious about this strange tonic.

For instance, in 1719 English medical writer John Quincy included this earthworm oil recipe in his writings on pharmacopoeia:

Take earth-worms well cleansed (1/2 pound); olive oil (2 pounds); white wine (1/2/ pound). Boil together until the wine is evaporated, and the worms become crispy, then strain out the oil for use.

Quincy notes that the oil is recommended as pain-relief for penetrating pain, such as arthritis, palsies, rickets and old age cramps. However, he warns: “They who trust too much to it…will be disappointed.”

Oh well — I guess we’ll just have to enjoy these strange earthworm syrup jars for their aesthetic beauty, rather than their medical usefulness! And the next time I have an ache, I will gaze upon my bottle of acetaminophen with a new sense of appreciation, grateful that I don’t have to take a slimy dose of worm syrup.

Small white glass apothecary jar with word 'Lumbric' on front and alchemical symbol for spirits
Glass jar for Spirits of Lumbricor (earthworms), 18th century. Collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian. This is a glass jar that has had tin oxide added in to mimic the look of porcelain. It held an alcoholic solution mixed with dried earthworms, and may have been used to treat wounds and ulcers.
Clear glass apothecary bottle with painted label saying Lumbric: Alum: UST: and alchemical symbol for spirits
Glass jar for hot earthworm and alum spirits. Collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian. This jar originally contained a solution of heated alum and dried, pounded earthworms, and uses as an astringent or diuretic.
A photograph of an apothecary jar painted with the word 'Lumbricor' and floral decoration
Earthenware chevrette for oil of earthworms, 19th century. Collection of Musee Bretagne, France.

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  1. Jerryskids

    But why has no one addressed the obvious question on the first two earthworm syrup recipes – what exactly is a measure of earthworms that we may know what a half-measure is? Are earthworms measured by the foot or by volume? And is the proper collective noun for a measure of earthworms a wriggle, a squirm or a squeamish?

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  5. This site, and the author never ceases to amaze me. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, you realise you hadn’t. When – not if – you get to open the B & M version of this blog, please sign me up for a lifetime pass: anything less would mean I have to rush…

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