Wednesday, May 12, 2010

History: Old Wives And Seafaring Surgeons

Historically speaking, medicine has gone through it's ups and downs, with the position being in the eye of the beholder. At one time medicine was almost entirely women's work. As the opinion of women in European society diminished over the course of the late medieval and Renaissance periods, however, educated men took up the mantel of "doctor". The Enlightenment dawned and medicine began it's "purely scientific" phase. At this point, a lot of what really worked for old wives and ship's surgeons was thrown out the window as "unscientific". Talk about the baby with the bathwater.

In the 20th century, however, acknowledgement of the efficacy of old time simples and poultices has come to the fore once again and not just in holistic medicine specifically. Many of these ancient remedies were tried and true aboard ship as well as on the frontiers, places where medical doctors weren't always easy to come by. So here's a little look at a few of those remedies, and just how astoundingly sound they were after all.

Drying herbs for cooking and/or medicines was known as "simpling" and this has been practiced since time (thyme?) in memoriam. Rhubarb, boneset, fleabane, feverfew, marjoram, and many other dried herbs were used to season food, cure disease, and even keep away pests. Fleabane sprinkled in hammocks at the start of a voyage, for instance, was thought to kill the pests until they were once again contracted by land. The herb could even be rubbed in the hair (for lice) or on the ship's dog or cat. As it turns out the herb works similarly to boric acid, drying the hopping parasites out and thus destoying both adults and eggs. One has to wonder about the rats, though.

Contact with the Far East, Africa and the Americas added to the medicine chest. Tea leaves treated sores and burns. Sassafras was used as a tonic, particularly in warm climates to "thin" the blood. Slippery elm was even more effective than tea leaves on burns. Then there was cinchona or Peruvian bark which yielded quinine, now well known to help reduce symptoms of malaria.

One of the most remarkable drugs to come out of the use of botanics was what is now known to medicine as digitalis. The drug comes from the common foxglove (shown above at left) and was probably used as a home remedy for heart failure (then called dropsy) as early as the late 1600s. By the late 1700s many Navy surgeons knew of it's efficacy and used it with great success. Thank you, old wives.

Of course alcohol was known to assist in pain relief and as early as the buccaneering era there are reports (Exquemeline, for instance, mentions this use) of pirate surgeons dipping their instruments in Madeira or port, or pouring it directly into the wound. Did they know it might help prevent infection? Probably not, but then they cauterized things regularly too and that must surely have saved at least the occasional digit or limb.

It wasn't just medicine from herbs that was used by our ancestors, and is now being turned to again. By the Napoleonic Wars some progressive surgeons in both the French and Royal Navy were keeping mayflies in jars for their maggots. These would be applied to wounds showing signs of gangrene and other infection. This is a time tested remedy (documented in Ancient Egypt, for instance) that seems to be periodically forgotten and then rediscovered through observation. Doctors now treat certain necrotic wounds and lesions with sterilized maggots quite successfully.

Remember then, Brethren, the old wife or the seafaring doctor next time you take whatever medication helps you along. As it turns out, we would not be as healthy now had their "unscientific" remedies been forgotten.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Would any of these simples or poultices help cure what's been ailing you lately, or should we just stick to treating it with alcohol, Pirate Queen?

And have we got any of that Peruvian bark to hand?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Since I judge all medicine by the simple question "what would Stephen Maturin do?" (or WWSMD for short)the cure for what ails me is surprisingly simple. The good Doctor's clinical suggestion would be to dose the patient with Peruvian bark and laudanum and strap her in her cot. La!

Daggar said...

One of the reasons that folk medicine declined so was a resurgence of moralism. Folk medicine typically included various methods for birth control, including morning-after pills and abortifacients of varying effectiveness.

These sorts of medicines were usually considered of greater import to woman practitioners than men. When men started taking over the business, they were more inclined to listen to contemporary church dogma than the desires of their patients.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! Unfortunately too true. I find that the issues surrounding the slow decline of women as keepers of the medical flame (and the decline in the value of females as human beings along with it) had more to do with the "big three" world religions than science. However, the strict adherence to the "scientific method", particularly in Europe, didn't help matters.

Periodically "forgetting" what causes scurvy is a good (and frequently nautical) example.

Daggar said...

Ha. Good point. There's plenty of misogyny in the Hellenistic traditions that the scientific method arose from, as well.