During the late 19th and early 20th century, in the seaside town of Eden, Twofold Bay, Australia, there was a very curious and smelly “cure” for rheumatism. This cure relied on locating a dead whale, making a hole in the skin, and crawling inside as if it were a slimy, meaty, rotting sleeping bag for at least 20-30 hours (luckily for the patient, in intervals).
Of course, randomly coming across a dead whale is not a normal experience. So, as documented by Louis Becke in A Memory of the Southern Seas, to make it simpler, when a whale was killed it was towed to shore. Then, while it was still warm, the corpse was slit open wide enough so the human patient could slide on in, deep enough that the lower part of their body (up to the loins) could sink into the whale’s jiggly intestines. The whale was then closed up around the patient – because if you thought a dead whale may smell bad from the outside, imagine the stomach-churning stench from the inside, with decomposing gases escaping furiously from any uncovered opening.
“The smell and heat were hardly bearable. The whale had been dead about forty hours and had started to decompose, and the whole time we were sitting and standing there great blasts of gas and horrible bubbles would gush out around us and make our hair stand on end," one traveler told the Sydney Bulletin.
Apparently, the rheumatic pain was relieved for up to 12 months. It is believed that the heat and gases created an environment similar to a “sweat box”, which was thought to relieve the pain of rheumatic illnesses. In fact, it was suggested that this cure was similar to putting the patient’s aching body into a body-sized poultice.
As reported by the Australian National Maritime Museum, there is a lot of speculation around the origins of this cure. One theory is that there was a well-known businessman who approached a local whaling family to allow him to try the treatment, and after spending a day buried he emerged cured. One newspaper in 1896 suggested that the cure originated from a drunken man who fell into the carcass and became stuck, until finally emerging hours later apparently free of his rheumatic pain.
But, it is thought that the real origin of the gloopy whale cure is from practices of the indigenous people of Twofold Bay. The local Yuin people used to use the washed-up remains of whales for different purposes; for example, the flesh was used for medicinal and ritual purposes, while the bones were used in shelters. In fact, notes from R.H. Matthews from 1904 explained how the indigenous people used whales to cure rheumatism by lowering themselves into the body and using the fat for pain treatment.
Despite its original popularity in this town, this cure quickly fell out of favor around the First World War, for one main reason: the smell.
In fact, as Becke wrote: “Sometimes the patient cannot stand this horrible bath for more than an hour, and has to be lifted out in a fainting condition, to undergo a second, third, or perhaps fourth course on that or the following day."
Even after emerging from the whale, the unpleasant smell lingered and, as you can imagine, eau de whale probably wasn’t a smell that most people wanted wafting around.
“After four days I walked up town, and everyone I met shied at me – a leper could not have been avoided more discreetly. Girls that I knew cut me dead; men whom I considered true brothers held their noses and bolted; sometimes man would gallop past, and, if on a fast horse would say “Good-day!” and vanish,” the unnamed traveler told the Sydney Bulletin.
Nowadays, there are medications that can easily be used if you need relief from rheumatic pain, so you do not need to go whale-watching for your next medical treatment.