History can be horrifying

Case in point: that time when human fat was a valuable commodity.

Whether procured from plant, animal, or human sources, in one form or another fat has been an important element in the European pharmacopoeia since ancient times. For reasons that are not quite clear, a medicinal interest in human fat was especially pronounced in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1543, the physician Andreas Vesalius instructed anatomists who boiled bones for the study of skeletons to carefully collect the layer of fat “for the benefit of the masses, who ascribe to it a considerable efficacy in obliterating scars and fostering the growth of nerves and tendons.” Vesalius knew what he was talking about. At the time, human fat was widely considered—and not just by “the masses”—to be efficacious in healing wounds, and was typically harvested from the recently deceased. In October 1601, after a particularly bloody battle during the Siege of Ostend, Dutch surgeons descended upon the battlefield to return with “bags full of human fat,” presumably to treat their own soldiers’ wounds.

Yikes. Let’s go kill some people, and then smear their bloody greasy bits on any injuries we might receive. I’d normally think that shooting medics was an evil act, but what do you do when you watch their doctors descend on your friendly fallen to rip out their guts?

Once you got home, you’d find there was an active trade in the bodies of executed criminals, and any other dead people they could get their hands on, to sell in the local drugstore.

The wise druggist kept large supplies of human fat (Axungia hominis) on hand alongside numerous other solids and liquids derived from human corpses, a class of materia medica known as “mummy.” If fortune smiled on the fat trade when the rate of executions increased, it would have been positively beaming during the Terror days of the French Revolution. According to some reports, certain Parisian butchers started offering their customers an exciting new item: graisse de guillotiné, supposedly procured from the corpses of the freshly executed.

I wonder if Walgreens has any in stock? In a capitalist economy, creating a demand for graisse de guillotiné might actually make billionaires worth something to humanity.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    Somewhere, a hallucination created by a disaffected Edward Norton comes up with a fantastic business idea.

  2. sirrod says

    The way things are going, I personally think there will be more money to be made in the manufacture of guillotines.

  3. christoph says

    When Egyptology was in fashion in England in the 19th century, people would ingest the dust from mummies in the belief that it would extend lifespan and cure ills.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    this reminds me of a Monty Python skit. You know it.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 6:
    something about how he made his soap
    I didn’t say that, 1st RULE, you know

  6. tenine says

    De Soto’s men did this with bodies of Native Americans after the battle of Mabilia. I didn’t know it was standard 16th century battlefield medicine in Europe, pretty bizarre and barbarous. Western Civilization is pretty weird.

  7. Artor says

    Meh. They’re not using it anymore. As long as the fatmongers are only collecting their product from the already dead, it doesn’t seem like a heinous crime to me.

  8. bortedwards says

    We harvest blood from the living…
    Hopefully one day we will have cheap and readily accessible synthetic plasma so that future generations look back at us and similarly shake their heads.

  9. wzrd1 says

    I am reminded of cadaverous transplants of corneas, skin, major arteries, even heart valves at one point and a number of other still current procedures, including organ transplants.
    But this, it is, decidedly, mentally ill land odd.
    Soylent Green, anybody?

    This departed the highway through the uncanny valley straight into Bizarro world.

  10. EvoMonkey says

    It still is a valuable commodity. I collect fat from pathology specimens with patient consent and IRB oversight of course. It is used in cancer research in tissue culture. Many researchers are also interested in the role of fat in cancer, metastasis, etc.