It can sometimes be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when discussing medicine. What constitutes a good heart rate and blood pressure? How about sugar and cholesterol levels? How useful is the Body Mass Index? What vitamins and supplements should I take? New studies are constantly determining breakthroughs and cutting edge treatments. But how did we advance to where we are today? Take a look back at Hippocrates and Galen, for example, who medical science has had a long time to debunk. How out-there were they? Well, let’s check out some of their medical practices.
Lack of Dissection
For most of Western history, there has been debate and difficulty in handling corpses. So for a very long time, it was illegal to perform dissections. As a bonus, our hang-ups led to some nasty misinformation when we started actually performing dissections. While teachers would often lead lectures, they would be reading straight from a book far away from the actual body. The Teacher’s Assistant would be near the body, pointing out to all the students what he thought might be the gallbladder… or maybe that’s the appendix?
Until we actually started dissections, there were many different theories as to what caused disease. One of the longest-running theories (popular in Ancient Greece) was the Humeral Theory. This theory, in a nutshell, declared that the human body consists 4 constituent parts that make up a body: Blood, Phlegm, Black Bile, and Yellow Bile. Each was associated with a moisture, temperature, and temperament, depending on how much of each you were individually supposed to have. If you felt ill, it was because your humors were out of balance, and you should go to a place with corresponding temperature/moisture levels to try to get them in balance. It was commonly believed that the body would remedy the humors by expelling phlegm, or perhaps a doctor would restore balance by letting out some blood. Wait, what?
Heroic Surgery (Bloodletting)
This is among the more famous practices here in the U.S., since it’s what killed president George Washington. When Humeral Theory was still kicking around, heroic surgery was supposed to balance the humors because the patient had too much blood. Later on, it was thought that one had to expel the “bad blood” that was tainted with disease, because even though the Humeral Theory was, shall we say, complete nonsense , its practices had to be worthwhile to have lasted so long, right?
Wrong, as evidenced by the Demonic Theory of disease.The basic idea is that demons possessed a person, or a specific body part. You can find medieval sculptures and paintings of demons flying around people’s insides causing maladies, or living in their teeth and mining at them to cause toothaches cavities. A good book on the subject is “The Burning of Bridget Cleary” by Angela Bourke, detailing a woman who was thought to be possessed by faeries in late 19th century Ireland (after Germ Theory was decidedly proven, but not yet universally accepted). The methods used in attempts to drive out the fae included throwing urine on her and titular burning.
It was believed that disease got in from “bad airs,” better known as bad smells. We now understand that decomposing materials and waste products are a breeding grounds for germs. Thus these materials result in a putrid odor.