Pearls in Medicine: Some Anecdotes

St. Albertus MagnusIn my in-box this morning, I received an announcement of a new line of lipsticks containing pearl powder to “make lips sparkle and glow.”

Although we pearl and bead stringers focus on pearls as ornament, ground or powdered pearls have enjoyed a long and revered place in the history of medicines and cosmetics. For two thousand years, the Chinese have ground them up and used them in powder form for treating disease and for skin care cosmetics.

Modern pharmacological studies do show that the ancients weren’t off track in believing in the medicinal powers of pearls. They contain a variety of proteins, amino acids, trace elements and minerals that are helpful in treating inflammation and pain.

Alfonso X of CastileThe Chinese weren’t alone in using pearls as medicine. The German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus, in the 13th century recorded that pearls are good for “mental diseases”, afflections of the heart (love-sickness) and for hemorrahage and dysentery. Albertus Magnus is a saint and doctor of the Catholic Church. (The Church honors only 33 other saints as “doctors” – those who have made significant theological contributions to the Church.)

Another 13th century notable, Alfonso the Learned, the King of Castile, recommended pearls for “paplatations of the heart and for those who are sad and timid and in every sickness which is caused by melancholia because pearls as medicine purify the blood, clear it and remove all its impurities.”

Pearls were used in the well-known Gascoigne’s Powder, a medicine widely used until the middle of the 19th century. A “receipt” for Gascoigne’s Powder mentioned in the 1732 “Compleat Housewife” called for powder of pearl, crab’s eyes, white amber, red coral and other ingredients to be made into a jelly “fit for private families…and their poor neighbors.”

Even with these few illustrations, Bobbie Brown’s lipsticks making “lips sparkle and glow” is the inheritor of a long and distinguished belief in the power of pearls that includes churchmen, royalty and the beneficent housewife.

Is it any wonder that we bead stringers love pearls?


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