There’s just something fascinating about weird medical history. It seems impossible that anyone ever thought, “Wow, I could stick a leech on that wound and it might help it get better!” but, someone did (and they were right—leeches are used today in recovery from various types of surgery and they have been used medicinally for centuries). Not all treatments were so prescient; take poor George Washington for example. Not only did he have horrible ivory dentures, and various illnesses during his life, but he was so vigorously bled by his doctors that they hastened his death. And then there’s trepanation, or drilling holes in the skull. It’s also been used for centuries, and patients often survived it!
If these examples gross you out, perhaps you may not want to read further, but if you are even just a LITTLE intrigued, check out some of these unsettling titles (with thanks to blogger Frank B. for the suggestions), about the unexpected twists and turns taken in the attempts throughout history to heal the sick.
For just plain weird, try Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine. Mütter was one of those renaissance men with deep compassion—he pioneered the use of ether as an anesthetic, and surgical hygiene. He also was a flamboyant dresser, and collected odd medical specimens. His museum is still in business in Philadelphia! In other news of the weird, check out A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts From the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome, A History of Medicine in 50 Objects, and the amazingly titled The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes.
For a dive into some of the sometimes shocking treatments the doctors tried, you can’t do better than Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge: The Dirty Secrets Behind Early American Medicine. Aimed at young adults, but a fun read for everyone, you’ll encounter everything from earwax tasting to grave robbery and many things in between. Local author Marin Younker keeps it light and humorous, which helps when all you want to do is yell “EWWW!” Another book along these lines is 1 Out of 10 Doctors Recommends: Drinking Urine, Eating Worms, and Other Weird Cures, Cases, and Research From the Annals of Medicine. The title says it all, don’t you think?
Last but not least, for imagery and illustration, try The Sick Rose, Or, Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration. This book displays images from 19th century textbooks, and similar sources. So many things that are treatable now that weren’t then, meaning that many of these images are eye-opening to say the least. One reviewer said the pictures inside are “beautiful. And horrible. And beautiful.” Other options along these lines are Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: Medical Photography and Symbolism and The Walking Med: Zombies and the Medical Image. And if you really love this stuff, check out the National Library of Medicine’s “Images from the History of Medicine” site, which has digitized images of everything from nurses’s uniforms through time to a picture of a statue of the Indian goddess of smallpox.
Be sure to share your finds with the next health care professional you meet! I’m sure they will LOVE it!
~posted by Ann G.