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Sunday, 21 August 2016

All about germs

Originally, a germ was a seed, and this sense is still preserved in expressions like 'wheat germ' and 'germinate', which is what a seed does when it sprouts, or in the 'germ of an idea', but for the most part, germs are now the latter-day equivalent of evil spirits, for they are invisible, all around us, and they cause us to be ill. The only difference, perhaps, is that certain mages can sell you cloths and sprays that will banish these spirits from your hearth and home. Then again, maybe things today aren't all that different after all.

Those of us with a thoroughly modern outlook are inclined to commend ourselves smugly for understanding these things, when those before us did not. But then again, maybe they did have a few clues about what was going on. Here is Daniel Defoe, in his Journal of the Plague Year, (published in 1722!) discussing what really caused the disease, writing about how one could tell who had caught the plague:
I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the party's breathing upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen by a microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents and devils, horrible to behold. But this I question very much the truth of, and we had no microscopes at that time, as I remember, to make the experiment with.
In fact there were microscopes in London just before the plague arrived, but these were primitive devices that would not have revealed the germs of the disease, the Yersinia pestis bacteria. It seems fairly clear, however, that Defoe had some idea that there were microorganisms of the sort that Anton van Leeuwenhoek had described, and that these might have caused the disease.

Well and good, by the time Defoe published, the scientific age was well advanced. Back at the time of the Black Death, our ancestors were really stupid, and knew nothing, right? Well, maybe not...

For a start, they were not completely lacking in any understanding. Here is Chaucer speaking through the host of the Tabard, in the Prologue to the 'Cook's Tale', most of which is sadly lost to us.

And many a Jakke of Dover hastow soold
That hath been twies hoot and twies coold.
Of many a pilgrym hastow Cristes curs,
For of thy percely yet they fare the wors,
That they han eten with thy stubbel goos;
For in thy shoppe is many a flye loos.

The Jack of Dover was probably a pie, and the cook stands accused here of twice heating and twice allowing the food to cool before selling it, a sure recipe for food poisoning, even if it is one ignored by many modern fast-food sellers. Pilgrims who have eaten the cook's old goose, fed on stubble, will have cursed him because his shop has many flies. In other words, Chaucer was fully aware, some time before he died in 1400, of what caused people to get ill from food they ate.

But refrigeration, surely that is a modern invention, and something that only modern people like us understand? Perhaps not, if you consider how Francis Bacon died in 1626, according to John Aubrey:
Mr Hobbs told me that the cause of his Lordship's death was trying an Experiment . . . it came into my Lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in Salt. They . . . bought a Hen, and made the woman exenterate it, and then stuffed the body with Snow, and my Lord did help doe it himselfe. The snow so chilled him that he fell immediately ill . . .they put him into a good bed, warmed with a Panne, but it was a damp bed that had not been layn-in in about a yeare before, which gave him such a colde that in 2 or 3 dayes . . . he dyed of Suffocation.
In other words, they decided to see if poultry meat could be preserved by chilling it, had the woman who supplied it remove the entrails ('exenterate' it), and then used snow to do the freezing task. So even the principles of refrigeration, it seems, were understood in the dim, dirty, unhygienic past. About the only thing we can give ourselves credit for is for inventing a phobia about germs.

And even there, we aren't very original. Louis Pasteur hated three things: the Germans, the left-wing French who swarmed everywhere and threatened to destroy the body politic, and the germs that he felt were trying to do the same thing to human bodies, like tiny, malignant revolutionaries. At least one good thing came of it: Pasteur studied the brewing of beer so French beer would be better than the German beer that all those horrid workers insisted on drinking.

Friday, 19 August 2016

There may be a small delay in transmission

I went to the ophthalmologist to say I needed new glasses, because I could no longer read 4-point type, not even in bright sun.

Now I know enough physics to know that the reason for using bright light is that the pupils constrict, and this makes focusing easier.

Given that, I should have realised that this was not just a matter of new spectacles. He knew what the problem was, of course, because he is used to seeing it, and he had diagnostic scans up on his screen.

I have been growing cataracts, a milkiness of the lens that can only get worse. So to cut a long story short, I had the first eye done today, and I will have the second done in three weeks.

Until I take the patch off tomorrow, wearing glasses is hard, so I may not be at the keyboard as much. Then again, perhaps I will drift back, because there's a list of things I must not do, like gardening, leaping, jumping and stuff.  Bang go most of my hobbies.

The only consolation is that I have a great pic for Talk Like a Pirate Day, coming up next month.

They say that getting old is a pain in the proverbial.  But as the clever ones say, the alternative is worse.

Anyhow, please make allowance for gaps, if they happen between now and Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Dealing with drowning

This is a small taster for a new book which I have been working on for some time. The state of the print-publishing market is such that I have decided to switch to e-book format, because this lets me pull off a few tricks with the text that I can't do in a mere-smear print book, mainly in terms of providing external links.

The title will be Not Your Usual Treatments, and it deals with quack remedies and also with some oddities that we would now consider as quack remedies, though they were once main-stream medicine. There are also a few treatments that were once denounced as quack or worse, which later became mainstream.

Anyhow, here is a small taster: I will do a couple more in the next week or two.

Methods for dealing with drowning were a little primitive, but apparently, as long as the man in charge wore a top hat, the patient was in safe hands. [Scientific American]

Drowning was almost as great a fear in the late 19th century as the fear of being buried alive, and there were many inventions, from floating suits to lifeboats and worse, intended to prevent this fate. The treatments for drowning were a little primitive:
 [Accidental hanging] The remedies for this accident are the same as in drowning, with the addition of taking away a small quantity of blood, by cupping glasses, from the neck, or by opening the jugular vein.

Curiously, tobacco, that enemy of breathing, was seen as the perfect remedy for drowning, though with a slight twist, according to William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, 1790. It was an old practice to force tobacco smoke up the rectum of constipated people, and surgeons usually had a device for this purpose, a sort of bellows arrangement called a clyster or sometimes a glyster.

In the 18th century, the clyster was used to revive somebody who appeared to be drowned. At first, this was for iatrogenic drowning, which was caused by enthusiastic use of immersion therapy (iatrogenic means doctor-caused), but William Buchan chose not to mention the origins of the practice. Still, he explained what to do when there was no clyster available.
There are various pieces of apparatus contrived for this purpose which may be used when at hand; but where these cannot be obtained, the business may be done by a common tobacco pipe. The bowl of the pipe must be filled with tobacco well kindled, and, after the small tube has been introduced into the fundament, the smoke may be forced up by blowing through an empty pipe, the mouth of which is applied close to that of the other. This may also be done in the following manner: A common clyster-pipe with a bag mounted upon it may be introduced into the fundament, and the mouth of the bag may be applied round the small end of a tobacco-pipe in the bowl of which tobacco is to be kindled, and the smoke blown up as directed above.

To be fair, Buchan also recommended a variant on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, just a page earlier: “To renew the breathing a strong person may blow his own breath into the patient’s mouth with all the force he can, holding his nostrils at the same time.”

Then again, near-drowning could offer some real benefits. In 1750, a writer using the name ‘Philanthropos’ reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine on the 1741 case of a “mad cow”, bitten by a mad dog in St Lucy’s Parish, Barbados. The owner, Hurdiss Jordan, regarded the cow as a favourite, so he had the animal tipped over on a dung heap where slaves held her while Jordan poured a pail of cold water down her throat. The cow recovered, and near-drowning was added to the list of potential treatments for rabies. I will stay with rabies and mad dogs for now, and come back to immersion therapy in the section on water cures in chapter 6.

[And that's where I stop.]

Weird enough to interest you?  Stay watching!

The references: Here are two samples of the sorts of links I will be providing:

Buchan, William, Domestic Medicine, 11th edition. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1790,

Mackenzie, Colin, Mackenzie’s Ten Thousand Receipts in all of the useful and domestic arts. Philadelphia: T. Ellwood Zell and Co., 1867,

[i] “[Accidental hanging] The remedies for this accident…”, Mackenzie’s Ten Thousand Receipts in all of the useful and domestic arts, 1867, 151.

[ii] There are various pieces of apparatus contrived for this purpose…”, William Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 610 – 11.