Likely imported to England from Sicilian mines, this is a small fragment of Sulphur. It probably arrived at Jamestown in 1609 as part of the surgeon’s chest sent by London surgeon John Woodall. In 1617, Woodall published a medical textbook which lists his recommended supplies for a surgeon’s chest. The list includes tools like the spatulum mundani and the cupping glass, herbs and spices, oils, ointments, and practical supplies like paper, thread and needles, towels, and other goods that would be critical to a surgeon who needed to perform a variety of medical interventions.
Woodall writes of Sulphur that it is “hot, concocting and resolving, it profiteth the asthmaticall, cough, collicke, greese and resolution of the members: taketh away itch, breaking out of all the body: dureth tetters or ring-worms, and scurffe and cureth rheumes and distallations.” He also indicated that it was a treatment for “falling sickness,” what we now call epilepsy.
Also referred to as “brimstone,” sulphur has been used medically since ancient times. One of the earliest writings to mention sulphur and brimstone is the Bible, with the idiom “fire and brimstone” included in the King James Version published in 1611. Sulphur or brimstone in both Christian and Hebrew biblical texts is associated with God’s wrath and divine punishment, becoming closely connected with Satan and hell.
Before the existence of the periodic table, sulphur was given an alchemical symbol and named as one of the tria prima. The tria prima, or three primes, were a set of three elements that 16th century Swiss philosopher Paracelsus believed could be used to cure disease. In his alchemical interpretation, sulphur represented the human soul, a curious connection to conventional religious conceptions of the element. Woodall’s 1617 text is entitled, “The Surgeon’s Mate,” but the longer title includes towards the end “a brief explanation of sal (salt), Sulphur, and Mercury… .” These are the tria primes. The 17th century was a period of exploration: across oceans, and closer to home, discovering how to treat medical problems, and seeking a way to extend life. Sulphur was a mysterious element, crossing between conventional religion, alchemical experimentation and medicine in the 17th century.