Cutting edge medicine owes debt to some ancient remedies
Reflecting on last week's column on the late Dr. Rawling Pratt-Thomas' remarks in a 1993 recorded lecture concerning the ancient medical diagnoses of our Charleston forbears got me to thinking about what kinds of remedies may have been around at the time.
I don't suppose hilarious would be the best word to describe them - because they were often borne out of desperate circumstances - but ridiculous to the point of amusement only because we now know better. A little blood-letting here; a tincture of this; a dollop of that; a compress of such and such; a poultice applied just so, an elixir of turkey gizzard, one-eyed newt and alligator liver (or whatever suits your fancy); endless consumption of medicinal plant extracts, vines, flowers, and much more.
And yet through this experimentation eventually came real scientific progress. For example, somebody, somewhere, decided to boil down the bark of a willow tree and found the extract capable of genuinely relieving fevers, aches and pains. The active ingredient was later identified as acetylsalicylic acid - better known today as aspirin.
It was that same type of intrepid soul who might have wandered through a cow pasture and found a rather nondescript cluster of mushrooms. He might have tried one out of curiosity and - to his amazement - started seeing things. Interesting medicine indeed. Common locally (Psilocybe cubensis and others), the active ingredient would later be called psilocybin.
Then again he might have found another fungus (Anamita muscaria) closely resembling one he had already tried that was delicious (although devoid of medicinal qualities - Anamita caesarea or Caesar's mushroom) that left him very ill - perhaps dead.
It's interesting how, before the modern era, morphine-based products (somebody, somewhere, once decided to consume the extract of poppy seeds) such as opium and laudanum were widely available as remedies. Even if they didn't really cure anything, they surely had a way of alleviating suffering and making people feel better. This probably fell under the general category of "not giving a happy rip."
To illustrate: Consider the modern-day colonoscopy. The entire idea is horrifying, repulsive, a hideous violation of personal space and privacy. But after a good shot of Demerol (a morphine-like product), who cares? I'm cheap, I'm easy, I'm yours.
In the realm of preventative medicine and prophylaxis, I remember my maternal grandmother (1897-1987) telling me how they prevented the spread of diphtheria from room to room during her childhood - by hanging sheets soaked with turpentine in the doorways separating individual rooms. And even during my lifetime, a common recommendation for dealing with the sun was to go ahead and get that first burn and be done with it.
In some ways, things really haven't changed that much. Much of the cutting edge of pharmaceutical development involves the investigation of new and undiscovered plant and animal material coming out of the South American rain forests. And you can be sure they're going to find some very useful things.
Comments about the weather a couple of weeks ago generated the following (in part) from Suzanne Boone (whose son, Carter Jernigan, was a genius neighborhood entrepreneur during his boyhood and took care of everybody's computer problems): "I find it interesting that weather affects our lives in so many ways. For example, my father, Wm. A. Boone, died 13 January 1982, when we had extremely cold weather. It affected his burial plans and prevented many people from getting to the funeral. There was the plane crash in the Potomac that same day. My father died suddenly and wanted to be buried in the family place in Saluda, SC. Instead he was buried at Carolina Memorial Gardens due to the weather and to my mother's distress."
Walter Duane adds the following list of groupings to supplement the sampling from James Lipton's "An Exaltation of Larks" that appeared here recently:
A plague of politicians.
A toll of telephone operators.
A cornucopia of fruit consumers.
A collage of con artists.
A ring of telemarketers.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@