Of Puppies and Toads: Marvelous Cures for the Plague

[Note: In my seminar on “The Scientific Revolution” this semester, I assigned graduate students to write a blog post that, once revised by the class during a workshop, I would publish on my “Labyrinth of Nature” blog. It was an exceptionally useful writing assignment because it helped the students identify an interesting problem or topic and to write an engaging piece about the subject for a general audience. I am pleased to post the first of these pieces, by Master’s history student James Sherwood.]

Early modern doctors had a variety of different ways to heal the many diseases that afflicted the population. Although most adhered to the teachings of the ancient physician Galen, others followed the Swiss medical reformer Paracelsus and practiced the new, chemical mode of healing. Doctors sometimes used methods based on occult sciences for diseases that they judged to be occult. Plague was once such illness.  A disease of the whole body, plague resulted from hidden, or occult, causes that could not be adequately explained in conventional, Galenist terms.  As a result, some doctors turned to occult remedies.   Read more »

Thessalos and the Magic Bowl

Bartolomeo Pinelli, Il Ciarlatano in Piazza (1801)

How do charlatans operate? What is the source of their fascination—and their power?

Charisma, of course. But what is the source of that charisma? I think that two things are important: First, the claim to possess “secret knowledge”; and second, the claim to have discovered the single cause (or causes) of all diseases.

Two examples will serve to illustrate this. One is of a young medical student of the first century A.D. by the name of Thessalos of Tralles. The other is the 16th-century surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti, who is the subject of my book, The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy (National Geographic, 2010). Read more »

The Legend of Ambroise Paré and the “Liberation” of Surgery

Ambroise Pare

One of the most enduring myths in the history of medicine is the legend of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré as the “liberator” of surgery from the dangerous practice of cauterizing gunshot wounds with a red-hot iron. Paré himself was the originator of the legend, having published an account of it in his book, Method of Treating Wounds Made by Arquebuses and Other Firearms (1545).  On a military campaign in Italy in 1537, he relates, he was forced to innovate.  Initially, as he was taught, he used boiling oil to cauterize what were considered to be poisonous gunpowder wounds. Read more »

The World’s First Mail Order Doctor

I have in my collection a book published in 1908 titled The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser, by “Dr. R. V. Pierce.” It’s a modest little volume that I purchased in a used book store in Madison, Wisconsin some years ago. First published in 1875, the book was tremendously popular in its day, going through more than 80 editions with over 2 million copies printed.

“Dr. R. V. Pierce” was Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840-1914), a graduate of the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati, the center of alternative medical training in the 19th century. Pierce moved to Buffalo, where he founded the World Dispensary Medical Association, which manufactured and marketed his patent medicines and nostrums, including his Favorite Prescription, “Extract of Smart Weed.” He later founded, also in Buffalo, the Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute. Pierce was probably second only to the legendary Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883) as a marketer of mail order nostrums. He placed advertisements for his products in newspapers across the country and plastered his ads on the sides of buildings and barns. Read more »

The Mysterious Malady of Marulla Greco

Surgery is no art for the squeamish. A simple slice through the skin – the practiced surgeon’s daily experience – may be enough to give an ordinary person nausea.  

The history of surgery is replete with instances of daring surgical interventions, harrowing battles against blood-gushing wounds, amputations accomplished at lightning speed and without anesthesia, amazing successes as well as spectacular failures. If it takes a certain amount of daring to be a surgeon, with or without anesthesia, it also takes practice, and the learning curve can be a steep one.

My book, The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy, tells the story of one novice surgeon’s learning curve on the way to becoming an expert surgeon. Leonardo Fioravanti, the book’s protagonist, practiced his art at a time when surgeons did not go to medical school, but instead learned their art as did other craftsmen: by watching and imitating a master. Read more »

The Renaissance Curioso

Continuing the theme of curiosity in the Renaissance that I began a couple of weeks ago with my post, “The Disease of Curiosity,” it makes sense to ask: What did it mean to be a curious person in the Renaissance? Which brings us to a quintessential but perhaps little known Renaissance figure: The Renaissance ‘curioso’. Read more »

The Renaissance Snake Handler

One of my previous posts, “The Disease of Curiosity,” generated a lot of comment in the blogosphere [Daily Dig; Morbid Anatomy]; so I’ve decided to follow that post with a piece about what was surely one of the strangest curiosities of the Renaissance: The appearance in the town square of the snake handler. Read more »

Book Signing at Barnes & Noble

I will be signing my new book, The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy on Tuesday September 7, 2010, from 12pm to 2pm at the Barnes & Noble University Bookstore in Corbett Center at New Mexico State University. Please stop by and say hello if you’re in town!

The University of War

In Physician, one of the writings collected under the name of Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C., the aspiring surgeon is instructed to follow the armies in order to learn the art of surgery.  In times of peace, writes Hippocrates, rarely if ever, “even in a whole lifetime,” does one encounter the kinds of severe wounds that one must contend with in the heat of battle. 

How true. Even today, some of the most remarkable surgical innovations have come as a result of warfare. Extraordinary advances in reconstructive surgery, for example, have been made during the Iraq war as a result of the need to treat injuries caused by roadside bombs. And, during the American Civil War, surgeons performed amputations with remarkable success.

Military surgeons must respond creatively to a wide range of new and unexpected situations. As an example, I relate this amazing tale from the Renaissance: Read more »

The Disease Called Curiosity

Nowadays we think of curiosity as an emotion necessary for the advancement of knowledge, indeed as the well-spring of scientific discovery. It was not always so.

Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, stated the traditional medieval view of curiosity, and it wasn’t favorable.  In the Confessions, the Bishop of Hippo made inquisitiveness in general the subject of a vicious polemic, thereby setting the tone for the debate over intellectual curiosity for centuries. Augustine included curiositas in his catalog of vices, identifying it as one of the three forms of lust (concupiscentia) that are the beginning of all sin (lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and ambition of the world).  The overly curious mind exhibits a “lust to find out and know,” not for any practical purpose but merely for the sake of knowing.  Thanks to the “disease of curiosity” people go to watch freaks in circuses and charlatans in the piazzas.  Augustine saw no essential difference between such perverse entertainments and the “empty longing and curiosity [that is] dignified by the names of learning and science.”  Read more »