In 1804, Seishū Hanaoka performed a mastectomy under general anesthesia, forty years before the West (America and England) were to adopt ether and chloroform. That single event signifies a curious, perhaps unique, pattern of knowledge diffusion—from a small Dutch trading post to an entire empire.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Not up to snuff on your emmenagogues and discutients? Grab a copy of the Merck Manual of the Materia Medica 1st edition,1899. It went through nineteen editions until 2011, when it transitioned to online only. It was the oldest continuously published English–language textbook of medicine, and Merck, a drug company founded 350 years ago, sold it at cost.
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.
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.
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.