Regarding a stricture of the rectum: “In its advanced stage I know of none equal to the injection of cold drawn linseed oil …”1 — Thomas Copeland, surgeon (1781-1855)

In a previous post I reviewed Dr. Andrew Duncan’s 1803 description of the chemical and therapeutic properties of flaxseed (also called linseed), which information was intended for Regency-era medical practitioners.2 In my last post I described the health benefits of flaxseed oil, drawing on the findings of recent clinical studies. Now I’d like to share with you what I discovered about how Regency doctors and surgeons used flaxseed oil in treating their patients. Hang on to your hat!

Flaxseed Oil and the GI Tract

Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville (Source: Wellcome Library, London and Wikimedia Commons)

The man in this oil painting is believed to be Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville. (Source: Wellcome Library, London image #V0017886) (CC by-nc 2.0 UK [PD=1923])

Clysters (Enemas) Made from Flaxseed Oil

Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville was a Regency doctor who specialized in treating pregnant women. In his 1818 book on the practice of midwifery he described a case in which a woman developed a fever after delivering her child.3 She also presented with lower back pain, great fullness about the abdomen, headache and shivers. Granville’s French colleagues suspected the woman had childbed fever, but he found no evidence of it. During his examination he found her rectum “distended by scybalous feces.” (The word “scybalum” means a hard mass of feces.) He immediately called for an opening mixture to be given twice daily. When that failed to satisfy he called for a clyster of flaxseed oil and opium to “be thrown up [into the rectum] and retained for some time.” (A clyster or glyster, as the word is sometimes spelled, is an enema.) After five days of this treatment, along with a light diet, the woman was “soon afterwards completely restored.”

Dr. William Buchan (Source: Wikimedia Commons [PD=1923])

Dr. William Buchan (Source: Wikimedia Commons [PD=1923])

Dr. William Buchan, whose ideas are often presented in these blogs, believed clysters were more important in human health than generally acknowledged. He had this to say about them:4

  • Clysters act to evacuate the contents of the belly.
  • Clysters are used to convey active medicines like opium and Peruvian bark into the system.
  • A simple clyster seldom does any harm and in many cases may do quite a bit of good.
  • When a patient has trouble swallowing, a clyster can be used to deliver food.

Here are his instructions for preparing an emollient clyster:

“Take of linseed tea and new milk, each six ounces. Mix them. If fifty or sixty drops of laudanum [opium] be added to this, it will supply the place of the Anodyne Clyster.”

Flaxseed Oil Used to Treat a Stricture of the Rectum

The quote at the beginning of this blog mentions linseed oil as a treatment for a stricture of the rectum.1 Today this condition is called anal stricture or anal stenosis, and in nearly all cases (about 90% of the time), it occurs after surgery for hemorrhoids. For those of you who simply must learn more about a stricture of the rectum as it was understood in Jane Austen’s day, I recommend reading Thomas Copeland‘s book Observations on the Principal Diseases of the Rectum and Anus, published in 1814.5 It can be downloaded from Google Books.

Flaxseed Oil Used to Treat Burns

The Surgeon’s Vade Mecum of 1809 — vade mecum books were popular during the Regency era — reported two opposite modes of treatment for burns: Sir James Earle recommended immersing the burned area in cold water, while Mr. Kentish preferred to bathe the burned limb in wine with camphorated spirit or spirit of turpentine, after which a liniment was applied.

19th-century brewery (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0)

19th-century brewery (Source: Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0)

Interestingly, one Mr. Cleghorn, an Edinburgh brewer, claimed to have good success treating burns with linseed oil.6 (No need to rely on the findings of clinical studies when advising the public. Just call your local brewer!) His formula consisted of linseed oil combined with lime water. Presumably Mr. Cleghorn was often called to treat burns, the process of producing beer being more treacherous then than now.

The Edinburgh New Dispensatory of 1813 likewise contains an entry for Linimentum Calcis or Linseed Oil with Lime, each three ounces, mixed by shaking them together. This therapy is described as being extremely useful in treating scalds and burns and, if applied in time, helps prevent the inflammation that often develops afterward.7

What We Know Today about Flaxseed Oil and Skin Wounds

Although the process by which skin wounds heal is not well understood, animal studies support a role for flaxseed oil in their repair. Rats with second-degree burns or skin wounds, for example, showed excellent wound recovery when their diet included flaxseed oil. These results may arise from the ability of flaxseed oil to promote angiogenesis—a process in which the wounded tissue lays down more blood vessels during the healing process. The factor in flaxseed oil that promotes the healing of skin wounds is its high concentration of the essential omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, for short. (Read about ALA and inflammation on pp. 62-63 of Flax—A Health and Nutrition Primer.)8

Flaxseed Oil: Good in Jane Austen’s Day … Good Now

In Jane Austen’s day doctors and surgeons used flaxseed oil to treat patients with burns or intestinal problems. Today flaxseed oil is known to help protect against heart disease and reduce the inflammation associated with chronic diseases. As little as one teaspoon of flaxseed oil daily can insure an adequate intake of ALA.

Up next: Regency-era uses of flaxseed in preparing infusions and poultices.


1Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph. Medical Portrait Gallery: Biographical Memoirs of the Most Celebrated Physicians, Surgeons, etc. (London: 1840, Vol. IV), p. 4 (PDF p. 33).

2Duncan, Andrew. The Edinburgh New Dispensatory (Dublin: Bell & Bradfute, 1803), p. 249 (PDF p. 280).

3Granville, Augustus Bozzi. A Report of the Practice of Midwifery at the Westminster General Dispensary during 1818. (London: Burgess and Hill, 1819), pp. 173-175 (PDF pp. 202-204).

4Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine: Or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases, by Regimen and Simple Medicines. (Boston: Joseph Bumstead, 1811), p. 442.

5Copeland, Thomas. Observations on the Principal Diseases of the Rectum and Anus; particularly Stricture of the Rectum, the Haemorrhoidal Excrescence, and Fistula in Ano. (London: J. Callow, 1814).

6Anon. The Surgeon’s Vade-Mecum. (London: John Murray, 1809), pp. 64-65 (PDF pp. 85-86).

7 Duncan, Andrew. The Edinburgh New Dispensatory. (Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute, 1813), p. 487 (PDF p. 688).

8Morris, Diane H. Flax—A Health and Nutrition Primer. Winnipeg: Flax Council of Canada, 2007, pp. 62-63.