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.
When we think of literature and medicine, we tend to think of prose: essays that reveal the physician’s internal dialogue or perhaps a medical thriller unleashed from the doctor’s imagination. But poetry, too, may flow from the pen of a physician—sometimes some of the best of poetry.
This topic begs for tangential excursions into genealogy, anthroponymy and historiography—if only we had time. For now, lets sort out the problem of the Doctors Hodgkin as posed in a previous post. Along the way, we’ll plant some signposts pointing to one such excursion.
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.