Sweet are the uses of adversity;
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.
William Shakespeare – “As You Like It”
Toads have made their mark on culture by nestling in a curious space between medicine and magic. In the middle-ages the toad was thought to be as common a witches’ familiar as the cat. The French lawyer and demonologist Jean Bodin noted in his 1580 work De la démonomanie des sorciers (Of the Demon-mania of the Sorcerers) that while certainly incriminating, the presence of toads should not, in itself, be sufficient evidence for the conviction and execution of a suspected witch.
As well as their alleged roles as witches’ companions or vessels for evil demons, toads were more benevolently employed in a variety of charms and cures. A generally held belief in the natural law of sympathy (that like is drawn to like) led to the lumpy, swollen and poisonous toad being used to heal lumps, swellings and poison. A live toad, rubbed on a sprained ankle was thought in Scotland to be an effective remedy. Living and dead toads, whole or in parts were widely carried or worn to ward against disease. In the C17th and C18th, bits of toad were so ubiquitous in the medicine bags of itinerant healers that they came to be known as “toad doctors”.
But the medical role of the toad did not end with the progress of science. As recently as the 1950’s toads were an important diagnostic tool, offering the most accurate form of pregnancy test then available. Urine from a pregnant woman when injected into female claw-toed toads induces egg production. This clear and reliable diagnosis proved immediately popular with medics and the general public. In fact, one of the first funding crises for the NHS was the sudden high demand for tests and the resulting cost of lab technicians wages and the purchase of thousands of live toads (Bodin and his fellow witch-hunters would have been extremely suspicious).
Current research into the properties of toxins secreted by some species of toad suggests that they might contain new and powerful anti-cancer compounds. Bits of toad are thus still finding a place in medicine cabinets.
But of all the many ways that toads that have been used to cure, protect and diagnose, the story of bufonite is possibly the strangest, and certainly the most tenuous. As referenced by Shakespeare, bufonite was a “jewel” thought to develop in the skulls of toads. Resembling small, round gemstones with a milky-white to dark-ochre colour these objects were first described by Pliny the Elder as a universal antidote to poison. To extract bufonite Edward Topsell’s A History of Serpents (1608) advises placing the toad on a red cloth whereupon it will “cast out the stone of their head, but instantly they sup it up againe, unlesse it be taken from them through some secrete hole in the said cloth”.
Many watchful but fruitless hours were likely spent waiting for toads to perform this trick. Perhaps if the toads had known that their frustrated audience might turn to another recommended method: burying them alive in an anthill to be reduced to bones, they might at least have made an effort to entertain. Not that the anthill method is more rewarding (expect I suppose from the ants’ point of view) since bufonite ‘gems’ are actually the fossilized teeth of an extinct fish and have nothing whatsoever to do with toads.