Was Voltaire’s dyspepsia really due to the illness, or to all of the purgatives with which he treated himself?  From a young age, he got into the habit of taking up to eight medicines and twelve enemas a month.

During his trip to England, he discovered a perfected machine for taking enemas.  He was delighted.  “It is a chef-d’oeuvre of the art!”  he exclaimed.  “You can put it in your gusset and use it when and where you like, you can use it all the time and wherever you are.”

Cassia and rhubarb were his favourite remedies, to which he added soap enemas.  On this subject, something amusing happened while he was in Prussia as the guest of Frederic.

From Berlin, Voltaire had asked the king to give him permission to visit the different German courts.  The monarch ordered a general, Count de Chazot, to accompany him and to pay for all of his travelling expenses.

Upon his return, the Count presented the bill to Frederic.  The first article was a fairly hefty sum “for soap enemas at two kreutzers each” taken by Voltaire during the trip.

“What is this?”  cried Frederic.  “What apothecary’s bill are you presenting me with here?”

“Sire,” replied Chazot.  “I will not deduct one denier for Your Majesty; for my bill is of the greatest exactitude.”

And the king had to pay it.

Another remedy which Voltaire used frequently was Stahl powder.  He obtained the prescription from King Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine.  We know the formula for this powder, which is a mixture of potassium sulfate, potassium nitrate and red sulphur of mercury.  This powder was taken in pill form.

In 1747, Voltaire sent a message to Frederic:  “I am tempted to believe that the Stahl pills would do some good to the King of Prussia;  they were invented in Berlin and they have almost cured me of late.”  Two days later, he wrote to the same sovereign, now his friend:  “I haven’t yet found anything which does me more good than the real Stahl pills, and we have only bad copies in Paris…  I beg Y.  M. to be so gracious as to send me a pound of Stahl pills… ”

Upon which, Frederic answered:  “There would be enough to purge the whole of France with the pills you ask of me, and enough to kill your three academies [the Academy of Medecine did not yet exist];  do not imagine that these pills are sweets:  you would be mistaken…  I have ordered d’Arget to send you the pills, which have such a big reputation in France and which the late Stahl used to have made by his coachman.  The only people here who use them are pregnant women.”

The Prussian king knew how to turn an epigram.  Doctor Frederic was giving a lesson to Patient Voltaire.

In 1736, Voltaire had only just entered into relations with Frederic, when the king started worrying about Voltaire’s indispositions, taking upon himself to seek medical advice for the writer, and begging him not to give him continual alarms by his frequent health problems.  “Your Royal Highness,”  wrote Voltaire.  “Is too good to have consulted doctors for me and to be gracious enough to send me a recipe which is better than all of their prescriptions.”

This recipe is contained in the post-scriptum of one of the king’s letters to his chamberlain:  “I have a bit of amber for Cirey and I have some Hungarian wine which, I have been told, will be a balm for my friend’s health.”

Although Voltaire drank moderately – a demi-setier of wine at each meal is more than he needs –  he likes to have excellent vintages, which his guests know how to appreciate.  As for himself, he sticks to burgundy, or corton, which he tries to get as cheaply as possible.

The wine sent to him by the king is appreciated by him more for the thought than for the wine itself.  He answered as usual by increased flattery.  “I only have confidence in doctors,” he wrote to Frederic.  “Since Your Royal Highness is the Aesculape who is gracious enough to watch over my health.”

The advice given to him by the king was not always to his taste, however.  In answer to certain rather libertine offers, Voltaire declared to him “that he needed furs in summer, and not girls, and that he needed a good bed, but for himself alone, a seringe and the King of Prussia”.

The king was extremely attentive.  If Voltaire had a temperature, he sent him the best quinquina that he could find.  Was there a dish which pleased him, he was instantly served it.  But what did Voltaire think of all of these favours?

“Digestion is the biggest point.  When I have a colic, I chase away all of the kings in the universe.  I have given up these divine suppers and find myself a little better for it.”  The king had to leave him “entire liberty” to sup alone at home or not to sup, when he felt even more ill.  Thanks to this tightening of his diet, he declared himself to be tormented less by his bowel problems and no longer held his abdomen with both hands.

But he had another problem.  He said that he was suffering from sciatic gout which kept him in his room, at a bad inn in Lyon.  He left this town shortly after, and went, all crippled, to the Prangins chateau, in the canton of Vaud, where “he waits for the end of a life filled with suffering”, in the hope “of going soon to the Aix baths”.

Unable to go, he fell back on drinking the mineral waters of Prangins, which he declared superior to the Forges waters, of which he definitely had a bad memory.

Eighth part tomorrow.

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