I got to this part in Jenny Uglow’s A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. The book is about King Charles II and Britain, mostly England, in the 1660s. And this is from right after the Great Fire of London.
It was a scene of horror, but also one of wonder, a natural curiosity drawing the observant men of the Royal Society. In the broken tombs in St Paul’s, they observed the mummified bodies of bishops buried two centuries before, while in the tomb of Dean Colet, a more recent burial, his lead coffin was found to be full of a curious liquor that had conserved the body. “Mr Wyle and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and it was a kind of insipid taste, something of an ironish taste. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like brawn.”
I grant this sounds daft that someone would go into the still-smoldering ruins of London after the greatest fire it had yet known, locate a corpse that hadn’t been destroyed, see that it was secreting some fluid, and declare, “I gotta lick that!” But that’s just what chemists had to do, back in the days before real professional laboratories with clear analytical protocols and even a concept of analysis existed. Everybody doing chemistry had to rely on touch and scent and taste. It helps us remember why Louis Pasteur was the first chemist to ever live to be 34 years old.