Sunday, May 31, 2015

Marketplace of the Marvelous - The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine

Author Erika Janik
Published by Beacon Press

Bleeding, blistering, leeches, patent medicine, herbalism, mesmerism. We've all heard of these or most of these as the beginnings of modern medicine. Much of today's health regimens have their roots in hydropathy and homeopathy; cleanliness, nutrition and exercise for example. Where hydropathy preached drinking water measured in pints many times in a day, the general recommendation is 8 ounces several times a day. Taking the water "cure" by literally gallons of water, bathing in very cold water, and being wrapped in cloth soaked in extremely cold water (in winter sometimes crystalized with frost and ice) sometime after the American Civil War segued into warmer water, bathing pools, eventually saunas, hot tubs and exercise of a more practical bent along with nutritious foods, especially at a time when food was home-grown.

Some things seem to go on forever, though. Some herbal medicines for women that came out of the early nineteenth century I most definitely recall being forced to take in the 1950s, in particular Lydia Pinkham's herbal concoction for women's health, which goes back as far as the 1870s, simply because my mother had taken it, my grandmother had taken it, and presumably my great-grandmother. It was the most horrible medicine I ever tasted which brought the comment when I complained "It has to taste bad to be good for you!" I'm sure many readers have heard that comment one time or another. This remarkable woman, through refinement, produced a medicine that actually worked and works still well over a century later. Lydia Pinkham managed to break a hold by men in medicine.

Even today there are many different ways to try to get well. Everything from spiritual, hypnosis, every "new" cure. One might say everything old is new again when it comes to desperate people seeking help. Even leeches are sometimes put to use today. I found the journey to be interesting and educational. Did everything work? Often more than one might think, but then there is always the placebo effect, people will believe they have been cured whether they have or weren't actually suffering a disease as such or not. Mind over matter even then. Or perhaps because they want to believe they are cured.

So, through the centuries, medicine has played a major role in spite of itself. So many trials, so many ideas: some rash, some sensible, some moving forward and some backward. Among the later trials leaned more toward physical intervention, namely chiropractic and/or osteopathy. Almost all these ideas for healing have something beneficial, but often outweighed by obstacles. Still, it is interesting to follow the many ideas and reasons for many treatments. Some still exist in one form or another, others have slipped away back into the murky beginnings. I found this book to be very comprehensive and fascinating. Erika Janik should be commended for the extensive research, and for writing such a tome while still providing an ease of reading on such a strong topic. I learned a lot about historic medicine and treatment, what worked and what didn't, and how in the end modern medicine came to be. Were the early "doctors" charlatans and quacks? Maybe not so much. Kooky? Definitely, but the end result was sometimes right for the wrong reasons.