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BMJ. 2007 December 8; 335(7631): 1215.
PMCID: PMC2128655
Between the Lines

Getting tar struck

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

There is nothing so stupid, said Cicero, but that some philosopher has not said it. Goodness knows what he would have said about the medical profession had the history of medicine been available to him. There is no treatment so ludicrous that doctors have not prescribed it, perhaps.

Still, one will try anything when nothing else is available. The greatest minds are capable of the greatest absurdity when it comes to health preservatives. For example, Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), the great Anglo-Irish empiricist philosopher who denied the existence of matter, was a great devotee of tar water, which he believed was efficacious against almost all known distempers. He wrote a book in praise of Tar Water entitled Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries Concerning the Virtues of Tar Water, quoting Galatians on the title page to the effect that “As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all men.”

Tar water is made as follows: “Pour a gallon of water on a quart of tar, and stir and mix them thoroughly with a ladle or flat stick for the space of three or four minutes, after which the vessel must stand eight and forty hours that the tar may have time to subside, when the clear water is to be poured off and kept for use, no more being made of the same tar, which may still serve for common purposes.”

The evidence provided by the bishop that tar water works was of the testimonial kind: “This cold infusion of tar hath been used in some of our colonies, as a preservative or preparative against the small-pox, which foreign practice induced me to try it in my own neighbourhood, when the small pox raged with great violence . . . In one family there was a remarkable instance of seven children, who all came very well through the small-pox, except one young child who could not be brought to drink tar-water as the rest had done.”

We laugh condescendingly: what about double-blind trials? But can we also know that it didn’t work without such trials?

Of course, trials would have been rather difficult to conduct, considering the doses of the stuff the Bishop recommended, and the taste of it. “Those who labour under old habitual illnesses, must have great patience and perseverance in the use of this . . . [and] which, if grievous or inveterate, may require a full quart every day . . . In acute cases, as fevers, of all kinds, it must be drunk warm in bed, and in great quantity; perhaps a pint every hour, till the patient be relieved; which I have known to work surprizing cures.”

Yes indeed, surprising: though whether they were cures, or the patient simply stopped complaining for fear of another dose, will probably never be known.

Tar water survived the bishop, being used at least a century after his death, and we find Mrs Gargery, in Great Expectations, forcing a pint of it into Pip after she suspected him of having bolted his food. She gave her husband a dose too, when he had what she called “a turn.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on poor old Bishop Berkeley. His belief in tar water was no more ridiculous than Bernard Shaw’s in Dr Jaeger’s sanitary woollen system, or my grandmother’s in weekly castor oil.

Bishop Berkeley’s belief in tar water was no more ridiculous than Bernard Shaw’s in Dr Jaeger’s sanitary woollen system, or my grandmother’s in weekly castor oil


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