7 Bizarre Beliefs About Health From History
Despite centuries of research, a lot of the facts of human health are still a mystery; like, how can we cure cancer? What really causes mental illnesses? Is that mole on your leg something to be concerned about? However, even though the number of remaining questions we have about human health is vast, we can be certain about a few things. Like the fact that asbestos is actually bad for you; that jewelry will not help cure you of the measles; and that licking a donkey's nose is likely not the most effective way to deal with a head cold. Surveying the state of a lot of ancient medicine, it's actually kind of a miracle that anybody survived history at all; and sometimes it seems as if humans made it to the modern age in spite of — rather than because of — medical "knowledge."
Most of us have at least heard of some of the weirder medical ideas from history. Trepanning, or drilling a hole in the skull to "let the problem out," is up there, as is bleeding with leeches and using copious amounts of cocaine and opium in medical prescriptions. (Ah, good times.) But there were some less-discussed past health beliefs that were considered rational and absolutely believable at the time, that now seem, in the light of modern knowledge about the body, completely bonkers.
Here are seven of the strangest beliefs about health in humanity's history, from saint's blood to hand-chopping laws. Enough to make you feel much better about your hay fever antihistamines.
1. Jewelry Will Protect You Against Disease
The notion of amulets as specific protective devices is thousands of years old, but the ancient Egyptians were the masters of it. They utilized a vast array of amulets in many different materials designed to appeal to a particular god or provide protection against specific problems, but they also entrusted at least some of their health to the small man-made objects hanging around their neck or waist.
And they got very specific. If you wanted general health, you might wear a copy of an oyster shell made out of metal or stone, or a pendant showing the eye of the god Horus; but that was frankly showing a lack of imagination. Amulets of hedgehogs were, for unclear reasons, associated with cures for baldness (a recipe to cure baldness involved hedgehog quills, so likely they thought there was some kind of relationship between prickly animals and hair), and hippopotamuses were worn by pregnant women to help with childbirth. It wasn't just about cures, either. The ancient Egyptians believed in the power of malevolent magic and ill-wishing to cause disease and problems, and amulets were often inscribed with protective spells about health to ward off dangerous charms.
2. Doctors Should Lose A Hand If Their Patient Dies
This is one of the oldest edicts about doctors and medical practise in history; it comes from the Code of Hammurabi, a vast tablet laying out the laws of ancient Mesopotamia that dates back to approximately 1754 BC. (It now lives in the Louvre in Paris.) This is the document that the legal code of "an eye for an eye" originates from — quite literally, in that it recommends that anybody who takes out an enemy's eye loses one themselves — but it also contains a few interesting laws that indicate being a doctor in ancient Babylon was no picnic.
Some of the laws are pretty straightforward: they set out the fees for physician services in different classes of society. But when a patient dies...that's when things get a bit sticky. If the physician manages to accidentally kill or blind a patient who's an aristocrat or a "freeman" (i.e., not a slave), he will have his hand cut off, no questions asked. If he kills a slave, though, he just has to find another slave, and if he blinds one, he only has to pay half of the slave's value to the owner — so, basically, an unfair arrangement disrespectful to human life for everyone involved.
3. Asbestos Can Help Block Spells
If you've read my history columns before, you know that I have an enduring love for Pliny the Elder, the Roman physician and utterly bonkers collector of medical "cures," most of which were (and remain) disgusting or inadvisable. When it came to the general health of his patients, though, Pliny was admirably restrained: he recommended one major technique for maintaining your health: asbestos. Yep.
To be specific, Pliny advised use of asbestos for "resistance against all magic potions;" he described the material as derived from a plant, and seemed to think it could help people who were being targeted by unsuspecting magicians. Pliny wasn't a particular fan of magicians, whose proposed "cures" often involved tough-to-find items like hyena anuses and cock testicles, and who also marketed love potions. Pliny was a man who heartily recommended kissing the nose of a donkey if you had a bad head cold, so his idea of good and bad medicine was a little, er, interesting.
4. Water Will Cure All Your Problems
As far as cures go, this is so benign it's actually pretty charming. The idea that a dose or bath in the mineral water of Bath, England would be therapeutic was gigantically popular from the 18th century onwards; the physician Doctor Thomas Guidott was in large part responsible, because he published several books advertising it as a cure for everything from palsy to sciatica, whether bathed in or drunk. This was total nonsense, but compared to kissing a donkey, it's pretty cute.
Poor Charles Darwin was subjected to a water-cure of a different kind. Suffering from a number of awful symptoms from dizziness to nausea, he went to a doctor in Malvern and endured ten days of rubbing with wet towels, before being packed with wet sheets, given perspiration baths, and ordered to undergo constant communal bathing and showering. Darwin seemed to think the "water cure" was working and tried it numerous times over the years, but considering that his condition was likely a severe chronic illness, wet sheets weren't going to do very much to help.
5. Your Body Is Intimately Tied To Star Positions
If you went to any healer in medieval Europe for treatment, they'd likely spend quite a long time figuring out the position of planets and stars in the night sky, which may seem like a completely irrelevant matter; but to the physicians of the time, it was vital. Various parts of the human body, the theory went, were associated with different heavenly bodies, and thus, their current astronomical status meant a lot for your bowels or lungs or whatnot.
The British Library has a collection of zodiac medical treatises used by medical men to check which month or day might be associated with which ailment. Both the planets and the particular star signs were involved; both Libra and Venus were connected to the health of the kidneys, for instance. Treatment meant looking for opposites on the other side of the horoscope or sky: a treatise on the practice from the 1930s talks about curing "diseases caused by Mars" with "herbs under Venus".
6. Saint's Blood Will Help Everything
The concept of the "holy cure" is still alive today, if the amount of pilgrims journeying to Lourdes seeking medical divine intervention is anything to go by. But the medieval Christians took it to extremes. Cathedrals and holy places prided themselves on the collection of relics (body parts and associated objects) from saints themselves, and pilgrims visited the remnants for help in everything from money to health. If you were ailing in a particular limb, it was common to make a wax model of it (called an ex-voto) and leave it at a shrine; but if you were really in search of a miracle cure, "saint's blood" was definitely the way forward.
The remains of Thomas Becket, who had been sainted after his murder in 1170, were housed in Canterbury, and the owners of the shrine distributed something remarkable: ampules, or small containers, filled with a combination of water and (supposedly) a minuscule amount of Becket's blood. You could open them to take the water and cure yourself of ills, as Becket was supposed to be a particularly healing saint.
7. You'll Recover If An Entire Nation Prays For You
If all else failed in 19th century England, at least you could rely on prayer. Lots of prayer. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who was Queen Victoria's eldest son, nearly died of typhoid in 1871 after contracting it in Yorkshire. The fact that he survived was very likely due to increasing medical understandings of infectious diseases (or dumb luck), but common opinion put it down to something else: national prayer.
Queen Victoria herself had asked the entire Anglican church to pray for her son's recovery, and apparently the church and thousands of parishioners across England complied in spades. The force of all the prayers was sufficiently monumental that the press thought they were entirely responsible for the Prince's unusual recovery. Which must have been seriously frustrating to the Prince's doctors.