A history of bad medicine

Private Property South Africa
Shaun Wewege

Winter is coming. Yes, I realise that statement makes me sound like a Games of Thrones character, but the cold season brings with it something far worse than freezing temperatures: cold and flu experts. Everyone becomes an expert and knows why we fall ill; and everyone seems to have a cure.

Throughout the ages, treatment for illness has ranged from the bizarre to the downright dangerous. Colds and flu are also big money-spinners, so it’s no surprise that we are forever seeing more miracle pill, immune booster and alternative medicine manufacturers eager to share in the profits earned by pharmaceutical companies.

Prevention better than cure

Ancient Romans believed that prevention was better than cure and went to great lengths to improve public health and hygiene. Sewer systems, a supply of fresh water and keeping fit were part of their wellness strategy. Of course, they had their bizarre beliefs too. Silphium, a fennel-like plant was used as a contraceptive, to prevent indigestion, treat coughs and cure warts. If the Romans had infomercials, silphium would surely have had bored retirees reaching for their credit cards to place an order quicker than you could say, “But wait, there’s more!”

Medicine in the Middle Ages was in part based on surviving ancient Greek and Roman texts and would also see Islamic medicine gain popularity during the Crusades. Despite the progress made, medicine was held back by belief in the supernatural. Barber surgeons would perform minor surgeries. We may scoff at this idea now but back then it must have been a real time-saver. You could get a haircut, trim your beard and have an arrow removed all in one afternoon. Who leaves surgery looking fabulous with a new hairdo these days? If you were wealthy you would have been able to afford anaesthetic. If not, you were told to bite down on wood while the painful procedure was carried out.

Ha ha aha!

Medicine in the Victorian era must have been loads of fun but that may be due to the use nitrous oxide (laughing gas). In the 1980s we had yuppies using cocaine; in the 1880s the upper classes got their kicks from laughing gas, which was meant to be used as an anaesthetic. Chemist Humphrey Davy was the first to discover how nitrous oxide caused uncontrollable fits of laughter and spent his career observing the effects of gas inhalation. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for him.

Literature, and later, film and television, would be indirectly influenced by one of the Victorian era’s most well-known medical personalities – Dr John Bell. With a flair for theatrics, Bell would astound his medical students with keen observations. He could diagnose a patient with only minute details – he would, for example, note a sailor’s tattoo, tie it to a geographic location and then explain that the hapless sailor must have picked up some tropical ailment. He was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes who, in turn, has inspired countless film and TV characters including House, Monk and most lead actors in crime scene investigation shows.

My advice for onslaught of well-meaning but ultimately useless home remedies that you are going to receive? Take them with a pinch of salt (which, in ancient Egypt, was often taken in suppository form).

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