Long before pharmacies, if you were suffering from a kidney stone, you might try a remedy with "bear's haire" to numb the pain.

For symptoms of tuberculosis, you could turn to a homemade concoction involving beer and snails.

Whatever your ailment, the prescription for relief most likely came in the form of medical recipes — painstakingly recorded by ordinary people brewing their home remedies from everyday ingredients. The recipes often were compiled into books that became family health manuals passed down over generations.

Think Grandma's chicken soup for a cold.

One of the largest collections in the Midwest of medical recipes occupies an inconspicuous space at the University of Minnesota's Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine. The collection dates to the 16th century and includes both handwritten manuscripts and typewritten books.

From a mutton, endive, sugar, red deadnettle and dandelion medley to cure the common cold, to treatments for melancholy and patching up bald spots, these centuries-old recipes offer insight into the medical concerns of that time. They're also prophetic: Many people now are using herbs and natural supplements to prevent or treat health problems.

The writings also reveal prevailing attitudes about health from previous generations and their ideas on how best to live well.

"When people think of ailments, they think that people had the black plague," said Lois Hendrickson, curator of the library. "But really in these recipe books, we also do see healthy living recommendations — you shouldn't eat too much of this or that.

"Maybe we think we invented that," she said, "but people were thinking about those things for centuries."

Return to nature

They were also experimenting with natural remedies — a practice that has become popular again.

In recent years, herbal medicines have become an increasingly common choice to treat everything from headaches to insomnia to cold symptoms. Echinacea, anyone?

The link between past and present is reflected in the fact that some of the foods and plants prescribed in the university's collection are used today. Among the classic natural healers: ginger to soothe an upset stomach and aloe to cool a sunburn.

Other suggested cures from the collection sound a bit dubious — like something from a potions class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

For treating shingles, there's a recipe that instructs: "Take an egg both whit and yolks and the dregges of wine vinegar, mixt together and anoynt it."

There's also a guide to finding the best drinking water. "The best is rayne water," the author declares. "The next is running water if it runs from the est to the weast. The third is river or brooke water running on gravell or pibles."

Often, the medical recipes appear with other household instructions. In one book, you'll find recipes for treating plague symptoms next to instructions on how to take care of your horse and how to get rid of bed bugs.

Though all kinds of people dabbled in natural cures, a few assumed healing duties for the community.

"In a lot of monastic houses, you would have someone who was the brewer or the healer," explained Emily Beck, a recipe scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the university's program in the history of science, technology and medicine. Women, too, frequently took on the role of family healer and recipe keeper.

One notable book in the collection is from the early 1600s and belonged to an Englishman named Marmaduke Rawdon, a collector of manuscripts. The book is by one Mary Pewe, who survived the plague in 1625 and learned many medical recipes from her grandmother.

Do they work?

The reappearance of some recommended treatments over the years would suggest that they may actually work.

"Why do certain kinds of preparations appear over and over?" Hendrickson asked. "Why do people keep using them? Willow bark that turns into aspirin — that's the most common thing. We've known about that for more than 100 years. There are other things that haven't been looked into. Is there something that we've overlooked in nature that we should be going back to?"

No scientific evidence can be found in the collection to back up the recipe writers' call for a pinch of this or a dash of that to prevent or treat an illness. But the sheer volume of recipes is a testimony to how much people relied on them for relief.

"Even today, if people think that it's going to make them better, they have a chance of getting better," Hendrickson said.

Part of what's shifted is people's attitudes about wellness and medicine, Beck said.

"What we expect of medicine has changed," she said. "Will it work? It depends on what you expect. Will it cure rabies? No. But will it help a headache? Maybe."

Medical recipes are a relatively new area of interest for historians. The study of them first gained traction in the 1980s.

"Scholarship has turned in the last several decades from thinking about studying famous medical persons and now thinking of what does history look like at the local level," Hendrickson said. "What are people using in their everyday life? Things that you keep on your shelf. Like our parents probably kept Dr. Spock's book on their shelves."

But in the old days, the folks who were regarded as health gurus were not just medical doctors. They included celebrities known for their wellness regimens.

For instance, in one recipe book from the collection there's a mention of "a pretius water that Queene Elizabeth used to drinke of much." The water was made by steeping herbs into wine, and the author claimed that following the queen's regimen would help a person's eyesight and comfort his or her brain.

"Just like how people listen to what Gwenyth Paltrow does in her daily life, people wanted to follow Queen Elizabeth," Beck said.