As the number of Americans with no health insurance soars and more people use the emergency room as a primary care clinic, it is no wonder many Americans have the jitters about healthcare.
With all the news coverage and grim forecasts, it’s easy to forget that many aspects of modern medicine are dramatically superior to days of yore.
Take Arcagathus for example: the first doctor in Rome, he was widely admired until word got around that his use of knives and cautery was more likely to bury the patient than heal him. Thereafter, he was known as the “Executioner.”
Nowadays, we can be grateful that physicians have to go to school and learn all sorts of ways not to harm a patient before they’re allowed near one.
Modern medicine may be expensive and over-prescribed, but as a rule it doesn’t contain heroin.
In the late 1800s, Bayer added heroin to their cough suppressant for kids, and boy did it work. But after a few years, people noticed the hospitals were filling up with addicts. They still weren’t coughing, but what a trade-off! By the early 1900s, Bayer pulled the drug.
On the upside, and at about the same time, Bayer brought aspirin to us, and where would we be without it?
Reports from two centuries ago of experimental treatments by the surgeons of the Royal Navy provide additional perspective on today’s healthcare woes: One pneumonia patient had pints of blood removed in an effort to cure him—it was called bloodletting. He still managed to expire, confounding his surgeon. Another Royal Navy favorite was “tepid salt water baths.” Surprisingly, there were never any survivors of this therapy. One poor sod who fell overboard and nearly drowned had tobacco smoke blown on him as a cure. He did survive, but ended up hospitalized for pneumonia.
In ancient Mesopotamia, a sorcerer would be called in to determine which god caused what illness in a patient. Having identified the god, the sorcerer would attempt to send it away with charms and spells. We do not have accurate records as to the success rate of this treatment.
The Egyptians believed mightily in the practice of medicine and left copious notes on papyrus for following generations. Dr. Bob Brier shared some of their cures in his book, Ancient Egyptian Magic. After reading a bit, our mood elevated, our perspective shifted, and we decided to just shut up and soldier on, happy with the modern medicine we have.
In case you’re curious about what was written on some of that papyrus, read on, but do not try this at home:
Cure for Indigestion
- Crush a hog’s tooth and put it inside of four sugar cakes. Eat for four days.
Cure for Burns
- Create a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and ram’s hair. While administering this mixture say:
Thy son Horus is burnt in the desert. Is there any water there? There is no water. I have water in my mouth and a Nile between my thighs. I have come to extinguish the fire.
Cure for Lesions of the Skin
- After the scab has fallen off put on it: Scribe’s excrement. Mix in fresh milk and apply as a poultice.
Cure for Cataracts
- Mix brain-of-tortoise with honey. Place on the eye and say:
There is a shouting in the southern sky in darkness, There is an uproar in the northern sky, The Hall of Pillars falls into the waters. The crew of the sun god bent their oars so that the heads at his side fall into the water, Who leads hither what he finds? I lead forth what I find. I lead forth your heads. I lift up your necks. I fasten what has been cut from you in its place. I lead you forth to drive away the god of Fevers and all possible deadly arts.
Modern healthcare certainly has its problems, but at least today’s patients are free of spells, tobacco smoke and bloodletting. Is that better than a 4-hour ER visit? You be the judge.