“Double, double, toil and trouble.
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
T’is the season. It always is, when the leaves and the skies turn dark, for hot steaming beverages with cinnamon, pumpkin, and trick-or-treating witches. This Halloween, houses will be overrun with evil cackles, faces infested with warts and crooked noses. Brooms, pointed hats, leaky cauldrons.
Witches will be welcomed with candy and chocolate. That was not always so. Once upon a time, across time, witches were fallen women. They were creatures, somewhat human, generally female, with obscure powers to heal or harm. Warily sought, mostly avoided, generally shunned, feared, persecuted. Ultimately, burnt at the stake or hung. But this pervasive image across geography and time undermines and dismisses the real – and fascinating – women labeled as witches and their contributions to science.
Homer’s Circe, a divine sorceress who lures Odysseus and his tired crew into her home, then drugs them with a potion of herbs she concocted, recalls the image of a chemist. A non-fictional version of her, Mary the Jewess, is considered the Western World’s first true alchemist. If a witch is one who brews steaming potions with strange reactive powers, then Mary, who arguably discovered hydrochloric acid, certainly fits the description.
As does a certain Mrs. Hutton who, in 16th century England, developed a potion from the purple foxglove that treated heart failure. Her potion gave us, two hundred years later, digoxin and digitoxin.
Mrs. Hutton was a “healer.” Most witches were. Their spell books included, for instance, willow bark for inflammations. Today, we’d use aspirin … made from a precursor chemical found in the willow tree. They were the first to use garlic for ulcers and nightshade, a herb, as a muscle relaxant. Nightshade, today, is given to patients before surgery and to treat nerve-gas poisoning.
Many of these women helped lay the foundations of modern medicine. Elizabeth Talbot Grey, and her sister, Aletheia Talbot Howard, both countesses, published manuals of their research that contributed to the building of early scientific experiments. Elizabeth, for instance, developed the recipe Gascon’s Powder, a cure-all remedy at the time, and Aletheia’s publications heralded Paracelsian chemistry.
The stew and plot thicken then, with the question surrounding their persecution: If witches were mostly female scientists and healers, why were they feared and hunted?
The answer is likely to be found in the pages of history and its demarcation of the social and political roles women were meant to fill. Examples abound, from the Church’s Counter-Reformation literature discouraging women’s pursuit of knowledge, to England’s College of Physicians refusing to license them. Nonetheless, as history also shows, if women were not allowed into scientific fields, they chose to practice at its fringes.
At the expense of being demonized then and ridiculed, or worse, forgotten today. A thought to chew on while trick-or-treating perhaps this year.
Many of these women broke ground and paved it for others who, today, choose to study chemistry, biology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, computer science, physics. Perhaps the first women in STEM did sport warts and pointed hats.