Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Dangerous Doctors in the 18th Century

For this particular post I have been joined by bestseller-author Eleanor Herman whose book "The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medications, and Murder Most Foul (St. Martin’s Press, June 2018.)" has been praised by a wide variety of US reviewers including Washington Post Book World and The New York Times Book Review. The following is the work of Herman.

No one likes going to the doctor, but we should all thank our lucky stars for modern medical treatments. Past medical practices were often either deadly, gross, or a horrifying combination of the two. 

We all know that doctors used to bleed their patients, incorrectly believing that bleeding would remove the body’s “evil humours” that supposedly caused disease. Even George Washington was accidentally murdered in 1799 by his doctor who took 2,3 liters (80 ounces)—that’s 35 percent of his blood—in twelve hours to cure his cold. 

Billedresultat for 18th century blood letting
A well-to-do lady being blood-let

In 1712, an epidemic—probably measles—struck Versailles. Louis XIV’s grandson and heir, Louis, Duc de Bourgogne, his wife, Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy, and their elder son, the five-year-old dauphin, sickened, though they may have recovered if the doctors had not bled them nearly dry; thus, weakening the body’s natural ability to fight the illness. Three-year-old Louis (later Louis XV) was saved by his governess, Madame de Ventadour, who hid with him in the palace for several days to prevent the doctors killing him.

Ironically, the wealthy stood a greater chance of suffering death by doctor, as fatal physicians were expensive. Those too poor to summon a doctor relied on bedrest and chicken soup and had better odds of recovery. Many popular medical treatments were equally as dangerous as bleeding, and some were a great deal more disgusting! 

Let’s look at ten treacherous treatments that were used during the Versailles-era: 
1. For rashes and other skin disorders, physicians prescribed ointments of mercury, which absorbs easily through the skin and causes birth defects, kidney and liver problems, fatigue, irritability, tremors, depression, paranoia, mood swings, excess salivation, black teeth, and death. 

2. Doctors often used feces—bursting with bacteria, parasites, and infection—in medications. Horse feces was ingested by those with lung ailments. Rat droppings were eaten to ease constipation. Those suffering from nose bleeds were advised to thrust hog’s dung—still warm—up the nose. Human excrement—dried and powdered, was blown into the eye to cure ailments. 

3. To cure constipation, doctors recommended giving a pound of quick-silver at a time to a puppy, collecting it when it came out the other end, boiling it in vinegar, and drinking it. Being poisonous, it had the desired effect. 

4. Dead pigeons, roosters, and other birds, cut in half, were applied still bleeding to the heads and feet of sick people to draw out their evil humors, and sometimes left there putrefying for days. 

5. Physicians rubbed syphilis victims all over with mercury several times a day and placed them in tents to inhale mercury, which sometimes killed them on the spot. If it didn’t kill them, the poison might force the bacteria into remission, though the side effects were black saliva and teeth, deafness, tremors, and loss of parts of the jaw. 

A German illustration of a 17th century book
on treatment of syphilis using mercury

6. Royals and courtiers regularly consumed human fat, brain, skull, organs, and blood in their medications, obtained fresh from the nearest executioner. They thought they were consuming the remaining life force of the dead person, a potent rejuvenator. 

7. Catholics believed saintly body parts could effect a cure; moldy bones and leathery bits of skin were placed beside the patient to transmit holy healing energy. The Spanish court, however, went a bit overboard with this. Entire desiccated corpses were put into bed with sick members of the Spanish royal family. We can imagine a princess waking from a fever to find a skull with a hank of black hair on it sharing her pillow. 

8. Many women survived delivering their babies but died of infection soon after, killed by their doctors thrusting dirty hands and crusty instruments into the birth canal, which we now know is a wide-open germ receptor. Physicians did not wash their hands or their instruments between patients, spreading disease and deadly bacteria. 

9. Lice infestations were seen as beneficial. In 1650, English physician Robert Pemell wrote, “If lice be only in the head, in many it preserves their health, because they consume much excrementious humors.” 

Billedresultat for 18th century lice
A louse - so acceptable to Mr. Pemell

10. A cure for serious illness was to put the patient into the hollowed-out belly of a freshly slaughtered ox, horse, or mule, as the heat from the carcass was believed to draw out the evil humors. When that carcass cooled, the patient was dragged into another one still hot. An odd treatment, but then again, if he survived that, he could probably survive anything. 

For those of you who prefer their information delivered in a more visual manner than by text alone, Eleanore Herman has also produced three videos, that you ought to take a look at. It is a series of videos that cover the many ways people through history has gotten in touch with poison; from the banquet table to cosmetics and the purposeful use of poison to get rid of an unwanted person.  


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