When Isaac Newton Thought Toad Vomit Would Cure the Plague

Daisy Hernandez
Photo credit: ilbusca - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • Isaac Newton is a scientific titan. He fomulated three separate laws of motion, co-invented calculus (h/t to Gottfried Leibniz), and discovered gravity—to name a few.
  • But some of Newton's notes currrently being sold at auction are less scientifically sound: curing the plague with a combination of dried toad and toad vomit.
  • According to the auction house, these lost pages were last sold in 1936 and “has been only recently uncovered after missing for more than 70 years."

According to the father of modern science Isaac Newton, a potential treatment for the bubonic plague that ravaged London in the 1660s might have been a concoction comprised of “powdered toad [and] toad vomit.”

This week, two of Newton's recently unpublished notes on Jan Baptist Van Helmont's De Peste (On Plague) are being auctioned off and are expected to sell for somewhere between $80,000-$120,000. Bonhams, the auction house, says that these notes “are not verbatim transcriptions of Van Helmont's text, but rather a synthesis of his central ideas and observations through Newton's eyes.”

Van Helmont was a famous doctor who had experience working with the plague as he was living in Antwerp when the disease struck there in 1605. Whether or not he was good doctor depends on who you ask. A 1936 Annals of Medicine review paints an interesting picture of Van Helmont:

“He was called usually to patients who were abandoned by other physicians as incurable, and they were never long in his hands since on the second or third day they were either dead or cured.”

In his Ortus Medicinae (Origin of Medicine), Van Helmont included recipes for medicines and treatments most of them dreckapotheke and which included sweat and “toads as an amulet against [the] plague.”

Van Helmont's influence on Newton's theory about toad vomit becomes evident. In this particular manuscript, Newton wrote that the best treatment for the plague was:

“A toad suspended by the legs in a chimney for three days, which at last vomited up earth with various insects in it, onto a dish of yellow wax, and shortly after died. Combining powdered toad with the excretions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affected area, drove away the contagion and drew out the poison.”

Photo credit: Bonhams

Another popular toad “remedy” saw people wearing desiccated toads as necklaces in order to “draw the noxious vapors out of the patient's breast and onto its ... body.” Unfortunately for the thousands of people who perished from the plague, these toad treatments were nothing more than gross placebos.

As for Newton, the plague epidemic helped spur on his annus mirabilis, a Latin phrase meaning "wonderful year," in 1666. It was during this year that 23-year-old Newton laid the framework for his gravitational laws and what would eventually become Newton's crowning jewel, the three-volume work, Principia. He was able to do this work because the ravaging plague forced Cambridge to close its doors, giving Newton time to work on his theories.

You Might Also Like