via West Hunter
The idea that venesection was a good thing, or at least not so bad,
on the grounds that one in a few hundred people have hemochromatosis (in
Northern Europe) reminds me of the people who don’t wear a seatbelt,
since it would keep them from being thrown out of their convertible into
a waiting haystack, complete with nubile farmer’s daughter. Daughters.
It could happen. But it’s not the way to bet.
Back in the good old days, Charles II, age 53, had a fit one Sunday evening, while fondling two of his mistresses.
Monday they bled him (cupping and scarifying) of eight ounces of
blood. Followed by an antimony emetic, vitriol in peony water, purgative
pills, and a clyster. Followed by another clyster after two hours. Then
syrup of blackthorn, more antimony, and rock salt. Next, more
laxatives, white hellebore root up the nostrils. Powdered cowslip
flowers. More purgatives. Then Spanish Fly. They shaved his head and
stuck blistering plasters all over it, plastered the soles of his feet
with tar and pigeon-dung, then said good-night.
Tuesday. ten more ounces of blood, a gargle of elm in syrup of
mallow, and a julep of black cherry, peony, crushed pearls, and white
Wednesday. Things looked good:: only senna pods infused in spring water, along with white wine and nutmeg.
Thursday. More fits. They gave him a spirituous draft made from the
skull of a man who had died a violent death. Peruvian bark, repeatedly,
interspersed with more human skull. Didn’t work.
Friday. The king was worse. He tells them not to let poor Nelly
starve. They try the Oriental Bezoar Stone, and more bleeding. Dies at
Most people didn’t suffer this kind of problem with doctors, since
they never saw one. Charles had six. Now Bach and Handel saw the same
eye surgeon, John Taylor – who blinded both of them. Not everyone can put that on his resume!
You may wonder how medicine continued to exist, if it had a negative
effect, on the whole. There’s always the placebo effect – at least there
would be, if it existed. Any real placebo effect is very small: I’d
guess exactly zero. But there is regression to the mean. You see the
doctor when you’re feeling worse than average – and afterwards, if he
doesn’t kill you outright, you’re likely to feel better. Which would
have happened whether you’d seen him or not, but they didn’t often do
RCTs back in the day – I think James Lind was the first (1747).
Back in the late 19th century, Christian Scientists did better than
others when sick, because they didn’t believe in medicine. For reasons I
think mistaken, because Mary Baker Eddy rejected the reality of the
entire material world, but hey, it worked. Parenthetically, what
triggered all that New Age nonsense in 19th century New England? Hash?
This did not change until fairly recently. Sometime in the early 20th
medicine, clinical medicine, what doctors do, hit break-even. Now we
can’t do without it. I wonder if there are, or will be, other examples
of such a pile of crap turning (mostly) into a real science.