Dung and urine are more useful than you think

A Swedish body lotion that contains 
a urine substance.
© Pharmacia & Upjohn.
Photo: Steven Q.

In older Swedish pharmacopoeias there are references to Greek white. This was the white on excrement, primarily from dogs, but also from other animals. It contains a lot of lime salts and a French doctor claimed, in 1714, that “Taken internally it appears to have a freeing, separating, cleansing effect, especially for tonsillitis, inflammation of the lung, gripes; it may be applied externally to dissolve tumours”. A doctor even published a book in the mid 17th century with the title The Health Dung Pharmacy: How to Cure the Worst Diseases and Wounds from Head to Toe with the Help of Excrement.

Other 17th century physicians recommended the dung of elephants, deer, calves, foxes, hares, cats, swallows, crows, and cuckoos. Swedish sources refer to the faeces of dogs, geese, and peacocks. Linnaeus claimed that excrement from dogs, “was useful for remittent fever; from mice for worms, from oxen for rheumatism and fevers, from sheep for jaundice, from peacocks for dizziness and epilepsy, from pigeons effects doubtful”. Remittent fever is what we today call malaria. One of Linnaeus’ contemporary physicians wrote a recipe for “Juice of Goose Dung for Jaundice, preferably White”.

Other sources of urine were also considered good within medicine. Dioscorides writes that human urine, one’s own, drunk, could help against snake bites, deadly poison and the first stages of dropsy. The urine of dog applied against the bite of mad dogs. Urine from an innocent lad, drunk, helps against severe loss of breath. The urine of pigs is especially good for kidney stones. The urine of goats, drunk with water, for dropsy. During the 17th and 18th centuries, a popular drug was produced from distilled urine. Traditional medicine used dung and urine long into the 20th century and nowadays carbamide or urea, a urine substance, is used in most skin creams and face creams as a humidifier. More recently urea have begun to appear in toothpastes and chewing gum. An old way in traditional medicine to treat cracked skin in feet, was to urinate into a hollow and then stand barefoot in it.

Urea, or carbamide, was discovered in 1773 but not produced in a pure form until 1799. Partly based on this discovery, the Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1799–1848) introduced the term organic chemistry of natural products. Natural products were substances that occurred in living organisms. Everything else was regarded as inorganic and could be produced in laboratories. It was only in 1828, when the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882) managed to produce carbamide, an organic substance, from ammonium cyanat, an inorganic substance, that it was clear that you could make carbon compounds. The definition of organic chemistry as identical with natural products no longer worked and organic chemistry was then redefined as concerning the chemistry of carbon compounds. This definition still partly holds.

Last modified: 2021-11-08