Nathan Belofsky,
Strange Medicine
(Penguin/Tarcher, 2013)

If you've ever wondered what caused the Black Death, a little history would have cleared up the question for you. In 1348, King Phillip VI of France, tired of watching everybody in his kingdom drop dead in the streets, demanded that the professors of medicine at the University of Paris find the source. After a lengthy and exhaustive study, they came up with the answer: The Plague, they declared, had started on March 20, 1345 at precisely 1 p.m. Why was the exact starting date important? Because on that date, at that time, three higher planets in the sign of Aquarius had aligned; the corruption of the atmosphere was the result. It seems the planetary collision "being excessively hot and dry, set fire to these vapors." This caused the plague.

Mere humans, therefore, could not possibly do anything about the Black Death that was wiping out the population of Europe; it was a preordained catastrophe. Reasonable people might ask exactly what astrology had to do with medical science. The answer is simple: at the time, astrology was medical science. In Europe's leading medical schools, the laws required doctors to carry up-to-date charts and horoscopes in their medical bags.

Astrology wasn't the only weird thing doctors relied on in earlier times. John XXL, the only doctor who ever became Pope, was a fervent believer in the health benefits of drinking urine. (He was killed by a falling ceiling he had designed and installed, but I don't think we can blame urine therapy for that.) He wasn't the only man to advocate the curative powers of human waste. Galen, who didn't like the stuff himself -- he objected to the smell -- recommended that sick people drink "gold glue," which was urine stirred in a copper pot.

The treatment was so popular that the french physician Gilles de Corbell wrote a 347-line poem, On Urine, which medical students were required to memorize.

Got a toothache? You would call a "tooth-man" to burn your nerves with acid or a hot iron and rinse with molten gold. If that didn't work, you might be suffering from "tooth worms," in which case your tooth-man would place lighted candles in your mouth or smoke the worms out with smoldering roses. If neither of those treatments worked, the tooth-man would go for broke and and burn the skin behind your ears.

If all of this sounds, shall we say, a touch primitive, it is nothing compared to the other treatments Nathan Belofsky has gathered in his new book, Strange Medicine. This isn't simply a collection of weird and odd medical treatments over the centuries, this is a hilarious collection of weird and odd medical treatments over the centuries, one that will have you laughing out loud even as you shake your head in wonder.

The only problem I have with Belofsky's book -- which I love and highly recommend -- is that there is an underlying assumption that contemporary medicine has arrived at the apex and epitome of science and practice and that's why all of these strange treatments are so funny. As I was reading this book, though, I kept picturing people a couple of hundred years in the future looking back on our practices and wondering how we could be that stupid.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

31 August 2013

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