Medical History

I love art museums. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that ART, Tango, Theater, Travel & Mystery Fiction are my five big passions. What you might not have guessed is that I also go to NON-Art museums. After having studied American history and art history at NYU, I’ve often wondered about other kinds of history—specifically the history of science. In my long-post college years, I’ve become more and more interested in how science changes society and society changes science.

Visiting a Natural History Museum is an adventure in science and it can also show the “mistakes” of science, the misconceptions and corrections that are an essential part of the on going story of science.

A long time ago I was in London and became captivated by an exhibit about the early British fossil hunters—including Mary Anning. Her finds flummoxed the Victorian gentleman of science. Many of those men went through head-spinning contortions in order to find a way to meld biblical accounts of genesis and the fossil remains of “giant lizards.”

Current thinking links dinosaurs and birds, re-thinking the heavy-boned, behemoths or old science. Did the dragons of pre-history disappear or did they shrink and fly into the trees?

The history of medicine is fascinating, too. In Portugal I went to a pharmacy museum with a collection of medical artifacts from Ancient Egypt, The Roman Empire, the ceremonial objects of indigenous peoples of Brazil, acupuncture models, bottles of herbal cures, and more. I found myself drawn into the posters advertising patent medicines from the 19th century. The lure of these cures was oddly familiar to someone old enough to recognize the rise & fall of various diet & health claims.

I grew up being given baby aspirin (small, orange flavored chewable low dosage pills), but the discovery that aspirin causes Reye’s syndrome in children changed pediatric treatments for chicken pox, the flu, etc. Having done some freelance work a few years ago for a major dietary supplement company, I realized how scarce the science was in support of some of today’s commonly used, over-the-counter ‘cures.’ It’s made me skeptical. It’s also inspired me to look closely at the medical history in historical fiction.

One era’s common cure is another era’s serious addiction (opioids) and margarine went from being a “healthy alternative to butter” to a product you can’t find in a health food store! The history of science & medicine is a great story.

A poster from the collection at the pharmacy museum in Porto, Portugal

Comments

  1. lol – I collect anecdotal ‘cures’, many of them old wives remedies from the past. Just recently, I watched a program on TV which looked at remedies for the common cold and one of them was chicken soup. My Mum swore that home-made chicken soup could cure anything. Well, apparently she was a little bit right – chicken soup does help, perhaps because it’s full of nutritious things that boost the immune system.

    I’ve also discovered that sour cherries aka black cherries aka Morello cherries are a fantastic natural anti-inflammatory. I have the beginings of arthritis so I eat some every day. They really do work to reduce pain due to inflammation. And honey sipped slowly works better than Strepsils to ease a sore throat. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      My late mother’s kidney specialist swore by hot water with lemon (drinking it now) first thing every morning. It gets everything going (digestive, elimination, etc.) I didn’t know this by my mom said her mother swore by it too! Chicken soup—the cure all— is always good.

      From a storyteller’s point-of-view, the history of science & medicine is full of BIG news that turns out to be false or just hyped to the point where it seems like a scam AND real scams. We’re about the same age and in the dietary supplement realm alone, we’ve seen the rise and fall of so many “essentials” that it’s funny. While the cures recommended by “old wives” often turn out to have some, or a great deal, of credibility. The story of western medicine is, at least in part, the story of the suppression of the old wives and the rise of the professional medical practitioners. The knowledge of herbal remedies based on observations, absent clinical studies, gets deemed “magic” or “suspicious” while the profession begins to create standards and rules. I’ve read plenty of historical novels with this kind of medicine as a backdrop. Sometimes I’m more involved in the science than the story. LOL

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