ninth-century physician Bakhtishu saves man with bird-shit medicine

Ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, Talmudic, Greek, and Roman physicians agreed that animal excrement has valuable medical uses.  Herophilus, founder of the great medical school in Alexandria early in the third-century BGC, introduced camel dung and camel urine into Greek medicine.  The hugely influential Greek physician Galen used pigeon dung in wound dressings.[1]  Not merely a curiosity of primitive cultures, medical use of excrement (dreckapotheke), like blood-letting, existed within well-developed, scholarly medical knowledge.

In ninth-century Baghdad, Bakhtīshū`, of the illustrious Bakhtīshū` family of Abbasid royal physicians, turned to mixed bird droppings in a medical emergency.  A fat, wealthy man took medicine and then greatly over-ate, despite Bakhtīshū`’s order not to do so.  The fat man’s belly swelled even further, and his breathing became heavy.  He appeared to be on the brink of death.  The man was quickly hoisted onto a camel and carried to Bakhtīshū`’s house:

All this happened on a very sultry day, and Bakhtīshū` was hot and bothered, standing outside his house.  He asked about the man’s condition and was informed of the whole story.  Bakhtīshū` had more than two hundred birds in his house — cuckoos, hoopoes, white birds and the like.  They had a large drinking pool full of water, which was now heated by the sun, and the birds had left their droppings in it. The physician called for coarse salt and ordered it to be thrown into the pool and dissolved in the water.  He then ordered a funnel and made the man drink it all, while he was still unconscious.  He told us to stay away from him, and indeed he evacuated abundantly from the upper and lower parts.  He became so weak that it was necessary to sustain him with perfume and francolin dung. But, after several days, to our great astonishment, he recovered.  Having asked Bakhtīshū` about his case, he told me: ‘I was thinking his case over and realized that if we should use a medicine he would be dead by the time it was all prepared and administered.  Now, we treat people afflicted by severe colic with pigeon dung and salt.  The birds’ drinking pool, heated in the sun and full of dung, was exactly what he needed, and this was the fastest way it could be administered.  So I treated him thus, and by the grace of God it worked.[2]

Bakhtīshū` was recognized to possess extensive medical learning.  He reasoned carefully in this case.  There’s no arguing with his success, either in becoming a wealthy personal physician to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil or in this particular case.  But kids, don’t try this yourself with your family’s bird-bath.  You shouldn’t presume upon the grace of God.

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[1] Von Staden (1989) p. 18.  Galen recommended the use of pigeon dung in his work, De compositione medicamentorum per genera, 3.6.

[2] Recounted in Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians (HP), pp. 275-6.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Von Staden, Heinrich. 1989. Herophilus: the art of medicine in early Alexandria: edition, translation, and essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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