A gallon a day keeps the doctor away

Bloodletting is one of the oldest medical treatments of all, employed for centuries in cultures all over the world. It’s also become a sort of lazy shorthand for the ignorance of our ancestors, the prime example of a useless and harmful technique that doctors persisted in using despite no good evidence for its efficacy.

Although it was largely abandoned as … Read more

A triumph of surgery

In June 1898, British newspapers reported an exciting medical story under the headline ‘Triumph in Surgery’. Their source was a case history published in that week’s edition of The Lancet. The author, Dr William Brown of Chester-le-Street, County Durham, was not a well-known figure; but for a few days, at least, he enjoyed a reputation as a pioneering surgeon.… Read more

Nobody nose

Leonardo Fioravanti was a celebrated – and later infamous – Italian doctor of the sixteenth century. You’ll find little information about him online, which is a shame, because his was a fascinating career. Like many Renaissance thinkers he did not restrict his investigations to one field but ranged widely across the arts and sciences, from philosophy to astrology, biology to … Read more

Bruit force

Committee reports aren’t exactly famed for their entertainment value. But while leafing through the 1850 volume of the Transactions of the American Medical Association I found one that contained an unexpected gem:

Report of the standing committee on surgery

Buried deep within this lengthy document is a section about aneurysms – a disorder of the blood vessels in which a localised weakness causes the vessel to bulge … Read more

A brace of bullets

On February 2 1888 the newly-founded Brooklyn Surgical Society held one of its regular meetings in New York. Local surgeons presented new research and reported on their recent surgical experience. But the most memorable event of the evening was a presentation by Dr George Fowler, a surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital. He began by asking one of his patients to … Read more

An infinite number of worms

Many medicines prescribed by physicians of the past were chemicals now known to be highly toxic. Mercury, arsenic and antimony were among the harmful substances regularly administered for a variety of conditions. In this case, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1759, a young boy was apparently cured by another chemical now known to be hazardous to health – but … Read more