In Ancient Egypt, doctors applied electric eels to patients with migraines. In the medieval times dentists burned candles into patients’ mouths to kill off those pesky invisible worms gnawing at their teeth. Even in the modern era, one of the world’s best-known brain surgeons, Dr. Walter Freeman drove ice picks into patients’ eyes to practice lobotomies. In Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through The Ages Nathan Belofsky takes readers back into time. Describing the wild and bizarre treatments, hubris-driven blunders and stomach-turning cures civilized society has been subjected to throughout history this book is sure to intrigue anyone interested in human history, medicine or the bodies they live in.
They Were Great Engineers . . .
Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor; now he is an undertaker. He is still doing as an undertaker, what he used to do as a doctor. — Martial’s Epigrams 1.47 (A.D. 100)
In ancient Rome, real men took care of themselves. If a Roman got really sick, maybe he’d hire a cobbler, a carpenter, or a blacksmith; all dabbled in medicine. Or he could go to the marketplace and hire a Greek or take one as a slave.
The first Greek to practice in Rome was the respected Arcagthus, sponsored by the government. Things didn’t work out as expected, however, and Arcagthus was re-named Carnifex, meaning “executioner.” It was a few hundred years before the next Greek doctor practiced in Rome.
Cato the Elder, the great statesman, hated Greeks, hated doctors, and especially hated Greek doctors. Speaking to his son Marcus, he said:
They are a quite worthless people . . . When that race gives us its literature it will corrupt all things, and even all the more if it sends us hither its physicians. They have conspired together to murder all foreigners with their physic [medicine].
Galen, one of those Greek doctors, gave as good as he got. Referring to the Romans and assorted other hordes, he noted, “[S]ome of the barbarian tongues sound like noises that pigs, frogs and crows make . . . these people speak . . . as if they were snorting.”
Roman healers weren’t good at much, but they apparently did have a talent for curing warts, or at the very least making fun of people who had them. Galen wrote of a man who made a living sucking the warts off people’s hands and feet, while, according to the poet Juvenal:
Hairy limbs and bristly arms
Suggest a stern personality,
But the doctor smiles as he removes
The warts from your smooth anus.
Upper-class Romans took great pride in their dental hygiene. Of a prominent Roman citizen was written:
Ignatius, because he has white teeth, is always laughing; if he be present at the felon’s trial, whilst the counsel is moving all to tears, he laughs; he laughs even when everyone is mourning at the funeral pyre of a dutiful son, whilst the mother is weeping for her only child. He laughs at everything, everywhere.
For toothache, historian Pliny the Elder described rubbing one’s mouth with a hippopotamus’s left tooth and eating the ashes of a wolf ’s head. The “filth of the tail of sheep” was used to strengthen the teeth, and for toothpicks Pliny wrote of sharp bones taken from a mouse’s head, and the front bones of a lizard captured in the full moon. But he cautioned against use of vulture quills, which, he said, caused bad breath. He recommended porcupine instead.
Always in love with bridges, the Romans fashioned dental plates of metal, and they filled in cavities. If all else failed, they resorted to the dreaded odontagogon, a giant tooth extractor made of lead.
A portion of the Hippocratic oath specifically bars doctors from poisoning people. This seems strange to us, but it wasn’t to the Romans, who didn’t like doctors but did like poison and doctors who knew how to use it. The poet Juvenal, an acute observer of the Roman upper crust, wrote that anyone who hoped to get anywhere had to be good at poisoning. As proof, he cited the faux pas of one woman who, upon poisoning her husband, found that he had swallowed the antidote beforehand; she had to stab him instead. Of course, husbands also poisoned their wives, and mothers poisoned their ungrateful children.
Nero, acclaimed for having fiddled while Rome burned, was so happy with his poisoner, Locusta, that he supplied her with pupils for her own poisoning school. Business was so good that praegustatores (tasters) formed their own union. The Roman emperor Claudius was poisoned by his physician, and doctors were routinely hired by persons of high standing to kill other persons of high standing. Some doctors skipped the middleman and killed people themselves.
The Romans were big on wool, said to have “awesome powers,” but cabbage held their highest esteem. Cato recommended eating it, or better yet, drinking the urine of someone who had just eaten it.
A meatier alternative was hepatoscopy, the study of sheep livers, by haruspex, the field’s high priests. Examining organ folds was serious business to the Romans, who founded a school to teach it. At a certain point, certain haruspex became so exalted that they constituted a threat to the state. Apollonius of Tyana, hoping to divine the best way to overthrow the emperor, was said to have sacrificed a boy for his liver. Roman leaders banned the practice, on pain of death. Still, it was haruspex Spurinna who said to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March,” as good a diagnosis as any.