Friday, 23 October 2015

Hedgehog Oil

Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) are said to be getting less common in Britain—hardly surprising news given the increase in the human population, the horizontal expansion of cities, towns and villages and the hard landscaping of gardens and public areas. The increase in the number of badgers which prey on hedgehogs is also being blamed.


The hedgehog population is these days though safe from organised human predation. I get bemused looks from my family when I tell them that the treatment in the 1940s and 50s for hard ear wax was hedgehog oil. From internet searches one may be left with the impression that hedgehog oil was used by country bumpkins who knew no better and who in turn had copied its use from the gypsies, as in this report from the Western Gazette of 11 March 1938:

Teddy Johnson, a 71 years-old recluse was on Sunday found dead in his small hut of earth and tins, near Swepstone, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, where he had lived for 25 years. His past life was a secret he kept to himself. He sold watercress and an oil extracted from hedgehogs, which countryfolk regarded as a cure for deafness…

A Mrs O’Dell was singing its praises in Luton News and Bedfordshire Chronicle of 20 July 1950:

The oil from the hedgehog is the finest stuff in the world for earache. It has been worth a lot to me, with a family, as we could not get olive oil in war-time.
     My mother-in-law used to skin them, cook them slowly in the oven and strain off the oil. The hedgehog is a tasty dish.
     The gipsies like them and it was the gipsies who told us to use them for their oil.

Its use was, however, far more mainstream; hedgehog oil came in small bottles from regular pharmacies. The bottle and its contents would be warmed to body temperature in water or in front of the fire before the oil was run into the ear from an eye dropper. Olive oil and proprietary preparations gradually took over; and remember that was the only use olive oil had in the 1950s—if somebody had suggested cooking with it or even eating it with bread, they would have been seen as quite mad.

Searching for information on hedgehog oil is complicated by the fact that ‘Hedgehog’ was used as a brand name for lubricating oil by W.B. Harrison, a ship chandler, of Sunderland. 

The question is, of course, why was hedgehog oil so successful? It was liquid at room temperature and, unlike fish oil, had no unpleasant smell. The adipose tissue of domesticated animals is too hard at room temperature to be used. The melting point depends on the fatty acid composition and, yes, hedgehog fat has been analysed* and it is possible to see from the results why it can produce when rendered an oil at room temperature that is effective at softening cerumen and relieving the pain of hard wax.

…And you take this as a report from a satisfied user circa 1949.

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*Laukola, S. 1980. Seasonal changes in the fatty acid spectrum of the hedgehog’s white and brown adipose tissue. Anal. Zool Fennici 17, 191-201.