Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Trivial Pursuit of Medicine

From ChicagoNow: The Trivial Pursuit of Medicine
I love trivia. What the New York Times calls--- in a series of books--- "useless information" has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. For example, did you know a caterpillar has four thousand muscles? Don't ask me how many abs or delts. That would be above my pay grade.

The iconic science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, who wrote "I, Robot" and hundreds of other books on just about any topic, shared my enthusiasm for trivia. He included in a book with the eponymic title "Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts" 3000 "of the most unbelievable, unusual, funny, fascinating, interesting ,entertaining, and fantastic facts about almost everything imaginable and unimaginable!" Not one for understatement was Mr. Asimov. But trivia does that to its zealots.

Let me delve into Asimov's compendium of 'useless facts' and present ten on a topic most of us seem to be intrigued with: medicine.

1. The first contraceptive diaphragms---centuries ago---were citrus rinds---half an orange rind, for example. ( Foster Friess' s aspirin came much later.)

2. Not until 1779 and the experiments of the priest-biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani was it shown that semen is necessary for fertilization. Six years later, Spallanzani carried through the artificial insemination of a dog. (This has nothing to do with the Non-Intercourse Act in American History.)

3. Tobacco was once considered a cure for many ailments, including headache, toothache, arthritis, stomach aches, wounds, and bad breath. It was rolled into pills in order to serve as a medicinal herb. A Spanish doctor, Nicholas Monardes, first described its medicinal potential in a 1577 book called "Joyful News out of the New Found World", and his views were accepted for more than two centuries. (Thank God for truth in advertising!)

4. When Columbus returned to Europe, he brought with him not only news of a new world, but a new plague as well. His sailors carried a virulent, deadly variety of syphilis that caused the Barcelona epidemic of 1493, and proceeded to ravage most of Europe. (Today we only infect Europe with pop culture and credit default swaps.)

5. Twenty thousand plants are listed by the World Health Orgainzation as being used for therapeutic purposes. (With the exception of tobacco, of course.)

6. Physicians in ancient India were skilled in a form of plastic surgery. They created new noses for people whose real noses had been mutilated---a punishment often applied for offenses such as adultery. The physicians cut triangular pieces of skin from the patient's forehead and sewed the graft in place. The patient breathed through reeds placed in his nostrils. (Which accounts for the beginning of snorkeling in the Indian Ocean)

7. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ritualized responses to the plague began to emerge in some societies. In Germany, the Flagellants arose. They attempted to appease the wrath of God by beating one another and themselves profusely. (The sadist words of tongue and pen?)

8. In 1777, George Washington had the entire Continental army---then 4,000 men---vaccinated. This action, considered controversial at the time because few American doctors believed in vaccination, may have saved the army as a fighting force. (Be a patriot. Get your flu shot.)

9. In England, from about the 15th to the 17th centuries, the color red was thought to be helpful to the sick. To bring down the fever, patients were dressed in red nightgowns and surrounded by as many red objects as possible. (Better red than dead?)

10. Dr. Rene Laennec (1781-1826) rolled a sheet of paper into a tube and placed one end on the chest of a plump female patient whose heart he couldn't listen to by ear in the usual fashion. He listened at the other end of the roll. This workable 'stethoscope' was the inspiration for Laennec's invention of the stethoscope while he was with Necker Hospital in Paris. (Modesty is the mother of invention?)

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