How A Rotten Whale Carcass Might Cure Your Arthritis

“Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!” —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

In A Nutshell

In the late 1890s, a pretty bizarre health trend was making the little Australian whaling town of Eden the place to go. According to one man (who may or may not have been drunk at the time) suffering from chronic rheumatism, he discovered the cure—submerging yourself almost completely in the carcass of a dead whale. Last 30 hours in the hot, rotting, stinking flesh and your pains could be gone for up to a year.

The Whole Bushel

The next time you think the latest health fads are getting out of hand and the latest discoveries from holistic healers makes you roll your eyes, take a little bit of comfort in the idea that whatever it is, it can’t possibly be as bad as the turn-of-the-century cure for rheumatism and chronic joint pain.

According to the theory, sitting inside the carcass of a dead whale for a few hours was nothing short of a miracle cure for those afflicted with arthritis, joint pain, and rheumatism. (You can see a patient taking advantage of this treatment in the photo above.)

The practice gained popularity (well, as much popularity as you’d think) in a whaling town called Eden. Off the coast of southern Australia, the town became something of a destination spot. A freshly slaughtered whale (it’s not entirely clear if the whale being a fresh kill makes the cure all the more potent) would be dragged up onto the beach, and a cavity carved into the body. The patient would be lowered into the whale, only their head outside of the carcass, where they would stay for about 30 hours or so.

Once they were done with the treatment, practitioners swore that they felt some major relief from their ailments for up to a year after. The time spent in the whale was supposedly linked to how long the relief would last—if you wanted to be comfortable and pain-free for a year, you’d better be prepared to spend about 30 hours in the whale-gut-poultice.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing was started as a cross between being a bit of a goof and, also not surprisingly, someone having had too much to drink. The story of how the whole thing came about ran in the New York Times on March 7, 1896.

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It says that a few friends were on the beach in Australia when they came across the body of a dead, beached whale. One of them did a swan dive into the carcass, and all attempts that his friends made to get him out were foiled by the sheer stench and absolute disgusting nature of his adventure.

So they waited. When he finally made his way out of the carcass a few hours later, he was not only absolutely, completely, and probably frighteningly sober, but the arthritis that he’d been suffering from for years was gone.

The discovery led to a massive surge in popularity of the Eden Beach and its hotels on Twofold Bay. The service was offered free of charge by whalers, who allowed a patient to lie in the body of their catch as they went to work elsewhere, turning it into all the dead-whale-goodness that they possibly could. While they worked, all the heat and the gases released by the rotting flesh of the beast worked on the lucky patient’s aches and pains.

The whale cure turned into a rather elite thing to do, likened to the idea of the Turkish baths. Supposedly, there were people that went on record not only swearing that it worked, but that it worked for years afterward.

Just how popular the practice was is definitely up for debate.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: National Library of Australia via Sydney Morning Herald
BBC News: Rheumatism sufferers sought relief inside a whale
NY Times: A New Cure for Rheumatism
Smithsonian: The Prescription for Rheumatism Used to Be to Sit Inside a Rotting Whale for 30 Hours

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