If we think about it for a second, medicine has indeed come a long way. There was a time when magic was held as medicine, now the coin has flipped and medicine is mistaken for a set of magic spells.
One of the first known mythological healers, Medea of Colchis was considered a sorceress and yet her methods were much more scientific than magical. She actually laid important foundations for modern medicine and pharmacology. In his research german botanist Kurt Joachim Sprengel lists 36 plants Medea had used in her craft. He also employs the term “Cura Mediana”, or Medea’s cure to describe her methods. And yet this mythological woman is still primarily seen as a witch.
The tendency of viewing healers as people performing magic tricks was no less prevalent in the Middle Ages. The line between sorcery and medicine was too blurred, as people confronted diseases with amulets, symbolic rituals and spells. A doubtful practice, to say the least.
The advent of Inquisition in Medieval Europe led many healers to stakes. But even such violence could not erase their legacy: pagan rituals were quickly turned into Christian ones as believers started flooding sacred places and burial sites of saints in hopes of miracles and healing. This gave birth to a new kind of saints, those able to heal certain diseases. There even was a prescribed prayer for every kind of sickly condition.
In the 20th century magic spells gave way to (pseudo)science. In the beginning of 1990’s John Brinkley came up with a novel way of treating male impotence. What he offered was to transplant a goat’s testicles to the patient. An elderly farmer was the first volunteer and a year after the transplantation he had a son named Billy! Patients stood in long lines in front of Brinkley’s front door.
The miraculous treatment cost 750 US Dollars: an astronomical figure in those times. And yet the most intriguing part of the story is the trick Brinkley used: He claimed that the success of the operation depended on the patient’s intelligence: the cleverer the man, the better his chances! Well, no surprise that nobody hurried to admit their lack of intelligence…
For some reason people have always liked to experiment on themselves. This keenness is most probably here to stay. In Peru, archeologists found human remains with traces of what looked like plastic surgery on them. It appears that heads of infants were purposely bound to make the skulls longer. Whether an egg-shaped head is in any way more beneficial than a head of any other shape, remains a mystery those ancient people took to their graves.
Some tribes went even further and actually punctured skulls of their infants, covering them with incrustations. (For what purposes exactly, better ventilation?!)
All this might seem a bit funny to us now that we live in times of computers and spaceships, and yet not so long ago some people were still keen on puncturing skulls for medical benefits:
“Would you like to be happy and in harmony with yourself? Choose lobotomy!”, this is precisely how the advertisement sounded. “Salesmen of lobotomy”, mostly charlatans wanting to make money started traveling around, offering relieving operations to anyone willing to take them. The most notarius of them was Walter Freeman who traversed miles with his van, lovingly called the “lobotomobile” and operated on people left and right. Those addicted to drugs or considered insane, alcoholics or “whores”… anyone could become Freeman’s patient if their relatives were willing to restrain them and use Freeman’s services.
Sometimes seemingly healthy and non-stigmatized individuals chose to undergo lobotomy. They believed advertisements promising them happiness, peace and harmony… I am not sure about the harmony though as the face of Randle McMurphy appears in my memory: didn’t he turn into a vegetable after the operation?
Even modern medicine contains cases of disputable methods, no less shocking than lobotomy. In the 90’s the court handled the peculiar case of Dr. Margaret Bean-Bayog who had convinced her patient that she was his mother. Her “son” was then forced to engage in BDSM during therapy sessions with her. While such methods of treatment might appear pleasant to some, the patient was distressed and committed suicide.
Who is to blame? Often enough it is difficult to point fingers… What heights could medicine achieve? I think it was Robert Sheckley who said that medicine is boundless in its abilities, it’s the patient who is bound and limited. Did he consider that our own foolishness could be boundless?!
There is a soviet movie called “The Eccentrics”. In this movie, rural doctor Noshrevan uses his own way of treatment: a pill of glucose and pomegranate enema!
For him, the patient’s illness and complaints are irrelevant. The method of Noshervan is to put an enema to everyone. And his hospital does not suffer from a shortage of patients.
I can't blame only doctors….
We might indeed live in the era of computers, powerful machines and artificial intelligence and yet I’m fearful there will always will be those needing nothing else but a pomegranate enema.
*Cover Image: http://www.nplg.gov.ge