These days, there are two brands of advocates for the use of magnetism in the practice of medicine. Some are high tech wizards, expert in biophysics. The others are charlatans. The charlatans are a hold over from past centuries when magnetism and biology were poorly understood. Two physicians played a prominent role in this story: Gilbert, who was arguably a better scientist that even Roger Bacon, his more famous contemporary; and Mesmer who was, contrary to the reputation of ‘Mesmerism’, not a ‘complete’ charlatan.
If the historical record is meant to be the ‘best available approximation of the truth’, then historians must acquire an intimate knowledge of the subject and objectively apply and interpret valid fact finding methods. Within the history of medicine, there is an ongoing and decades old debate over the relative merits of physicians versus social scientists as the most reliable or pertinent narrators. In trying to “locate” the discipline along a spectrum of mind-sets and skill-sets, there is no better place to start then the venerable program in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.
This story deals with the principle of fire, the breath of life and laughing gas—in other words, phlogiston, oxygen and nitrous oxide. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, a few of the best medical minds in England were spending their days in breathless anticipation as one desperate patient after another submitted to treatment with newly discovered gases. By night, however, they could be found in the parlors of the upper class, laughing up a storm with society matrons and famous poets.
While the Biblical imperative “Physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23) does not call for self-experimentation, there is a certain religious zeal, if you will, that has driven some physicians to do just that. The motivation and propriety of medical self–experimentation can be debated, but the many known examples make for more than a few good stories. Here are just three—the ones where such temerity was rewarded with a Nobel Prize.
Diego Rivera was a muralist–and a communist, sort of. In any case, he was the artist of choice for the government of Mexico when, in 1951, they wished to celebrate socialized health care in Mexico, which had only recently been implemented. Rivera’s mural is a painted panoply of art, allegory, history and politics that begs for interpretation.
This week’s post is a bit of a turnabout. I’m going to pose a question about three famous figures from biology and medicine, all named Hodgkin—who is whom and how related, if at all.
This is an exercise in information–seeking. Next week I’ll discuss what I came up with after ‘going down the rabbit hole.’
Given the popularity of our recent post on the Mütter Museum, with its collection of anatomical oddities, we offer more of the grotesque in medical history, this time with a connection to Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum. Herewith, the story of one Phineas Gage, what befell him and what was learned therefrom.
Today's story is somewhat brief, as I am presently busy caring for our fellow traveler—the one who appears at the end of each post. He was listening to commemorative messages for Martin Luther King Day delivered by Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson when he took suddenly ill. He turned red, then green, and threw up. I'm not feeling too well myself.
The barefoot doctors of China were cultural heroes, both at home and to an anti-establishment sector of the West. But to some, they were just practicing traditional Chinese medicine, making them more useful for propaganda posters than for public health. The truth is that the barefoot doctors were of great practical benefit and were the avant–garde of modern medicine in China.
The pending flip of the calendar to a new page and a new year is a fitting time to contemplate the patterns of change in medicine. Over eras and epochs, the practice and perceptions of the healing arts and sciences change inexorably—sometimes with the determined linearity of a railroad track, and sometimes with the dizzying circularity of a Ferris wheel.
Christmas Disease was first described in an issue of the British Medical Journal on Dec 27, 1952. Successful gene therapy for Christmas Disease was reported fifty-five years later on Dec 6, 2017 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It all started with Stephan Christmas, who was diagnosed in 1949, at the age of two, with a bleeding disorder—of some kind.
The invitation is right there on the landing page of one of the most engaging of medical museums: “We invite you to explore our world and become Disturbingly Informed.” Founded in 1858 for the purpose of research and education, its modern day persona belies its origin in the august milieu of ‘Philadelphia medicine’. The Mütter curators have relished exposing the public to its collection of anatomical oddities.
The Pilgrim expedition to Plymouth Colony in 1620 was a gambit. The separatists risked comfort and life itself to secure religious freedom. Illness was an ominous threat, met with archaic theories such as the “humors” and with herbal remedies. But the Mayflower manifested two important medical resources: a copy fThe Surgeon’s Mate by Dr. John Woodall, and someone who could read and apply it—Deacon Samuel Fuller.
In our post on medical philately we made reference to Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in America, an 1849 graduate of Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. She was soon followed by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in the United Kingdom. Both are remarkable women, but we wanted to reach back further to find the first in the world.
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.
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.