7 misconceptions doctors of the past about the human body and health

1. The state of the body is determined by the balance of the four fluids

Personification of the four humors, German engraving, 1460-1470. Image: Public Domain

In ancient times, under the influence of such tough guys as Hippocrates and Galen, a theory was formed that was designed to explain the appearance of any disease. It was called humoralism. And this theory dominated until the 17th century.

Humors are four fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. Their balance allegedly determines the state of health and temperament of a person.

Some ancient authors also managed to compare them with the seasons, natural elements, signs of the Zodiac and other things necessary in the anamnesis.

The theory of humors was not only meaningless, but also harmful, because dangerous medical practices were based on it. For example, bloodletting or taking emetics, laxatives and diuretics.

People with a fever or fever were placed in the cold to cool and “balance” the humors. Arsenic was used to draw out excess bodily fluids. Patients were given tobacco or sage to clear phlegm from the brain. And all this is to bring harmony to bodily fluids.

2. Bloodletting is great

Bloodletting from the Head, 1626 engraving. Image: Ottavio Beltrano / Wellcome Library

Since diseases were caused by an imbalance of fluids in the body, draining the excess meant curing the patient. It’s logical.

Even the ancient doctors Erasistratus, Arhagat and Galen considered plethora to be the cause of a lot of problems. Bloodletting, or phlebotomy, or scarification, was used in ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and did not disdain it in Muslim countries. And this practice lasted until the middle of the XIX century.

In Medieval Europe, bloodletting was used with or without cause – for colds, gout , fevers, inflammations, and sometimes just for prevention. It’s like taking a vitamin, only better. The procedure was performed not by doctors, but by ordinary hairdressers and barbers.

We make an extra hole in the patient, the disease flows out, we bandage the hole. Everything is simple.

Blood could be drained not only from the limbs, but also from other parts of the body – even from the genitals. The belief in the healing effect of bloodletting can be partly explained by the fact that with the same fever, the bleeding patient stops twitching and thrashing about in delirium and falls asleep, which was noticed by the ancient Aesculapius.

But in fact, the relief from scarification is illusory, and the ancient doctors were more likely to help patients die than to recover. After all, together with the blood, the body loses its strength. Therefore, in modern medicine, bloodletting in most cases is considered useless and even harmful. It is sometimes used in certain diseases like hemochromatosis, but nothing more.

3. Muscles run on “animal electricity”

Galvani’s laboratory. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1791, the physiologist Luigi Galvani published the book Treatise on the Forces of Electricity in Muscular Motion. In it, he described the results of his eleven years of experiments on frogs. Galvani touched the nerve endings of the dissected amphibians with copper and iron hooks, causing their paws to twitch as if the frogs were still alive.

From this, Galvani concluded that the muscles of living beings work on natural electricity, which they also produce.

His nephew, Giovanni Aldini, continued his uncle’s experiments with life-giving electricity. And in one of the experiments, he even made the body of an executed criminal twitch, shaking him with a current as it should. Mary Shelley saw this and wrote her Frankenstein.

Strictly speaking, neurons do create a weak current to work, but it has nothing to do with Galvani’s “animal electricity”. The physicist Alessandro Volta, a contemporary of Luigi, immediately said that the current is generated due to the potential difference between copper and iron, and the properties of frog neurophysiology have nothing to do with it. Otherwise, even in a potato one can see the beginnings of the nervous system.

4. Cauterization heals wounds. And hemorrhoids

Removal of teeth. Treatise Omne Bonum, London, 1360-1375 Image: Public Domain

People have been cauterizing wounds since time immemorial. Mentions of this method have been preserved in the ancient Egyptian Surgical Papyrus and the Hippocratic Corpus. The practice was also used by the Chinese, Arabs, Persians and Europeans.

The essence of cauterization was as follows: a piece of iron or other metal was heated on fire, and then applied to the wound. This made it possible to stop the bleeding , since the blood coagulates quickly from high temperatures.

Also, cauterization was used to “treat” the gums after tooth extraction. And the doctors of medieval Europe loved to heal hemorrhoids with a red-hot iron. These, no doubt useful, procedures should be combined with the attachment of leeches around the anus and prayers to St. Fiacre, the patron saint of those suffering from hemorrhoids.

And bullet wounds were sterilized with boiling oil. It was assumed that it was not the wound itself that killed, but the poisonous lead from which the bullets were cast. And he was “neutralized” in such an original way.

Naturally, such an appeal did not add health to anyone.

The fact that cauterization is not so useful, only in the 16th century, the French barber surgeon Ambroise Pare began to vaguely suspect. He noticed that patients who went through this procedure tended to die. But the lucky ones, whom he did not burn with a red-hot iron as an experiment, recovered more and more often.

As a result, Pare concluded that it was time to tie with boiling oil and hot pokers, and this turned out to be a truly progressive solution for that time.

5. Dental disease is caused by worms.

Page from an Ottoman dental treatise, 17th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

For most of history, people have suffered from dental problems. All sorts of firming and whitening pastes, powders and balms have been invented relatively recently. And earlier, to cleanse the oral cavity, it was increasingly necessary to use various unexpected things – leaves, fish bones, porcupine quills, bird feathers, salt, soot, crushed seashells and other gifts of nature. And the Romans, for example, generally rinsed their mouths with urine . Here.

Naturally, in combination with not the most healthy diets, this all led to caries and other troubles that the dentists of the past tried to treat to the best of their ability – pulling out the affected (and sometimes healthy) teeth.

By studying torn incisors, fangs and molars, the ancient healers found a logical explanation for why they hurt. It’s simple: worms start in them.

Records of this appeared in the medical texts of the Babylonians, Sumerians, Chinese, Romans, English, Germans and other peoples. And in some countries, belief in toothworms persisted until the 20th century.

They fought the damned parasites with very sophisticated methods: they tried to lure them out with honey or drive them away with the smell of onions, cleaned the gums of worms with donkey milk or the touch of a live frog. In short, they had fun as best they could.

Here are just worms in the teeth, even in the most advanced cases, are not found. For such, the Aesculapius of the past took dental nerves, dying pulp or microscopic channels inside torn molars. Caries is caused by plaque and bacteria that grow in the mouth.

6. Enemas improve mood and well-being

Enema in a French painting from 1700. Image: Wellcome Library

A medieval enema is a really harsh thing , which was made from a pig’s bladder and an elderberry tube. The device was used to introduce very original substances into the patient’s body, designed to cleanse the entire body and improve digestion.

Among them are boar bile or urine, mallow leaves and wheat bran diluted with water, honey, vinegar, soap, rock salt or baking soda. The lucky ones could simply enter water with rose petals.

The French “Sun King” Louis XIV was a real fan of enemas. More than two thousand of them were made to him, and sometimes the procedure was performed right on the throne. The example of majesty was followed by the courtiers, and it became simply fashionable to take medicines rectally.

In addition to enemas, they were fond of at court and a laxative made from flaxseeds fried in fat. It was administered orally and anally.

And in Europe, from the 18th to the 19th century, enemas with tobacco smoke were used. It was believed that tobacco is good for breathing. It has been used to treat a range of headaches, respiratory failure, colds, hernias, abdominal cramps, typhoid fever, and cholera. They also resuscitated drowned people with tobacco enemas.

7. Any diagnosis can be made by the color and taste of urine

Reception of analyzes at the monk-doctor Constantine the African, XIV century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Until the beginning of the 16th century, the scientific minds of Europe and the Muslim East were occupied with the idea that the color, smell, temperature and taste of a patient’s urine can tell a lot about his state of health.

This technique was called uroscopy , and Babylonian and Sumerian doctors began to practice it in 4000 BC. Thanks to the works of Hippocrates and Galen, uroscopy became very popular in the ancient world, and later in the Middle Ages.

To analyze urine, the Aesculapius used the “urine wheel” diagram, found in most medical reference books of that time, and transparent glass flasks, matula. Purely theoretically, in some cases, the procedure makes sense. For example, when diagnosing diabetes (urine becomes sweetish), jaundice (takes a brown tint) and kidney disease (becomes reddish or frothy).

The problem is that doctors have sought to connect with the urine in general, all diseases. And some even made diagnoses only by the contents of the matula, without examining the patient at all – for the purity of the experiment. Moreover, they even tried to understand the temperament of a person by urine.

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