Medical Philately

Medical Philately

Postage stamps may seem a trivial medium for medical history, but it is actually quite interesting. Medical philately is both engaging as commemorative art and sociologically informative about the public interest in this or that health topic. While individual stamps are ephemeral, the stories they depict are enduring. 

Smoking Skulls

Smoking Skulls

The skull has long been used to represent reflection, death or vanity. Consider for example the graveyard scene in Hamlet (Alas, poor Yorick), the raucous celebrations of Dia de los Muertos, or Gilbert’s eerie drawing “All is Vanity”. We present here a small subset of this form of symbolic art—the smoking skull.

Dr. J. Marion Sims—Hero or Villain?

Dr. J. Marion Sims—Hero or Villain?

The controversy over Doctor Marion Sims, “The Father of American Gynecology” is now at a fever pitch. His statue on the edge of Central Park gazes across 5th Avenue, right at the New York Academy of Medicine. The Mayor of New York is considering having it removed. The New York Academy of Medicine responded with an open letter, saying (paraphrasing here): “…fine with us, not on our property anyway.”  What did Dr. Sims do to deserve such enmity?

Nobel in Medicine 2017—It's About Time

Nobel in Medicine 2017—It's About Time

In 1984 Jeffrey Hall and Michael rosbash, two biologists at Brandeis University, west of Boston, pioneered the science of biorhythms by interrogating fruit flies about what makes them ‘tick’. For the next thirty-three years the pendulum of deliberation at the Carolinska institute swung to and fro, sweeping Nobel Laureates on and off the stage in Stockholm. This year, the time has come for Hall and rosbash, now septuagenarians, to be joined on stage by their only slightly younger colleague, Michael Young, to receive the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Bloody Miracles

Bloody Miracles

Just as blood circulates through the body sustaining life, its symbolism circulates through the psyche, signifying vitalism, kindredness—and magic. Christian beliefs are indelibly marked by the ‘blood sacrifice’ of Christ, memorialized by reliquary, the ritual of transubstantiation and bleeding stigmata. Miracles or not, some such phenomena may be mediated by thixotropy, S. marcescens and carbolic acid.

Molecules versus Malaria

Molecules versus Malaria

The observable features of Malaria have been known to mankind since 2700BC. This mysterious condition, once thought to arise from ‘bad air’, turned cities into graveyards and vanquished armies. The great apes are highly susceptible to the protozoan infection that causes malaria. It was up to Homo sapiens to do something about it—first evolving a biologic defense, then going on offense with chemicals. We may even ‘go nuclear’ with genetic engineering.

The Medical Papyri—An Annotated List

The Medical Papyri—An Annotated List

A doctor today may refer to their paper diploma as a “sheepskin”, perhaps unaware that this refers to parchment. In ancient Egypt such a diploma would have been written on papyrus, also derived from a plant, in this case the pith of Cyperus papyrus. Papyrus was abundant in the wetlands along the Nile Delta and was used for 4000 years to make boats, baskets, sandals—and for archiving the collective knowledge of a civilization, including several millennia of empiric medicine.

The FACS: A Tricorder for Biologists

The FACS: A Tricorder for Biologists

Rayleigh, Coulter, Gohde, Swift and Herzenberg—no, not a law firm. These people occupy points on a graph that plots the evolution of a device for medical diagnosis that, for hematologists anyway,  is a bit like a (non-portable) Tricorder. Known as a FACS machine (Fluorescent Activated Cell Sorter), it is a technology so advanced that, as Arthur C. Clarke would say, it is “indistinguishable from magic.”

Fever, a History

Fever, a History

A normal temperature is 98.6°F, so they say. This dogmatic fact persisted for 150 years, ever since a single physician derived it fact from compulsively prodding thousands of patients with primitive thermometers. He was close (the average temperature is actually 98.2). But it is variation in temperature, both normal and pathologic, that is more interesting.

The Black Sheep of Michigan Med—circa 1882

The Black Sheep of Michigan Med—circa 1882

I had read quite a bit of history about my alma mater, the University of Michigan Medical School, before encountering two of it’s most ‘famous’ students, both from the class of 1882. Eventually I learned of them not from institutional histories but in the pages of two engaging books by Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck. Each doctor in turn was found out and hung as one of the most notorious murderers of a generation.

Blood Stains: A Brief Forensic History

Blood Stains: A Brief Forensic History

As Mephistopheles said to Dr. Faustus “blood is a very special fluid.” Long before there was an appreciation of its astonishingly complex biology, blood was regarded with reverence as the life giving humor that it is. Severe trauma can cause blood to exit the body as drops, sprays and splatters, or flow into puddles. In any case, there was little to make of such a sight other than outward signs of tragedy. That is, until 1895 when a certain Polish professor decided that some rabbits needed to contribute to a new science—blood stain analysis.

Of Medicine Medallions and Immortality

Of Medicine Medallions and Immortality

It’s safe to say most doctors, whether clinician, researcher or both, did not enter the field with an ambition to win a prize. Most simply seek the satisfaction of helping the sick, the excitement of critical thinking and some degree of financial security. But societies fixate on rank-ordering achievements in almost every field of endeavor. For medicine, the best known is the Nobel Prize. We bring attention here to a worthy companion—the Copley Medal.

Blood—Bank On It

Blood—Bank On It

Who was the ‘father’ of blood banking and where on Earth was the first blood bank established? We look for answers in the curious life stories of four largely unsung physicians. Without the ability to bank blood, the benefit of transfusion would be lost to the majority of those who need it. While we start with a brief history of blood transfusion, the main story here is the evolution of those miraculous storehouses known as ‘blood banks’.

The Pathography of King George III

The Pathography of King George III

In 1788 King George III, in the middle of a sixty year reign, was suddenly acting crazy. The ‘mad doctors’ were called in and parliament considered the need for his son to assume power as ‘regent’. This eventually happened in 1811. But in the mean time, the King’s episodic ill health, mental and physical, continued to distress and perplex the court and his doctors. What was going on with the King? Can pathography solve the puzzle?