Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Random Walk Through the 1905 Medical Dictionary: Don't Step in the Album Graecorum


In a previous post,"Ditzels, Schmutz, and Grummus: The Language of Radiology," I complained about the traditional publication process, and used this blog to self-publish an essay that had languished for months after being submitted to a periodical's editor for review. I have still not received a decision on that piece. Proving the axiom, "Experience is the ability to recognize your mistakes when you make them again," I had submitted a second article to the same editor, and that piece has joined the first in limbo. So, in the hopes it might be read by a couple of people, I present it here.

Medical lexicon reflects the state of science and society. Today we hear of genomics, antidepressants, and Botox. These things were unknown in the medical dictionary of hundred years ago. Leafing through (or more accurately, scrolling through the PDF file of) Lippincott’s Medical Dictionary, copyright 1905, provides a glimpse of medicine and morals in the early twentieth century.

Several years ago, a local septic tank cleaning company was summoned to our house, and one of the employees made the observation to my wife that excrement (the said employee used a shorter, more colorful word) "don’t run uphill.” In the days before the sanitation industry had, by bitter experience and careful observation, gained such insights, it was necessary to find innovative ways to deal with human dreck. Thus, we find in Lippincott’s Medical Dictionary the A.B.C. Method ‘a method of deodorizing sewage by adding alumina, blood, and charcoal.’ Alumina and charcoal I can maybe understand, but blood? And where did the blood come from--the local abattoir? Until I saw this entry, I would never have associated the word “deodorize” with a slaughterhouse.

Moving on in the A’s, we encounter amatory ‘pertaining to love,' amatory fever, ‘love sickness, see chlorosis,’ and amatory muscle, which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the nether regions, but is the superior oblique muscle of the eye, responsible for turning the eye forward and inward, allowing lovers to ogle one another. But what of amatory fever? Strolling, or rather, scrolling boldly onward to the C’s, we find the synonymous chlorosis, ‘green sickness, a form of anemia affecting young women about the age of puberty. It is characterized by a pale color of the skin, weakness, depraved appetite and digestion, and nervous disturbances.' Less severe was chlorosis rubra, ‘a mild form of chlorosis, in which there is color in the cheeks.’ Notice that there is no mention of adolescent males suffering from love sickness. Indeed, a century ago, females bore on their shoulders, or other parts of their anatomy, the sole responsibility for the many manifestations of la maladie d’amour, as well as a variety of other ills, real or imagined. The male-dominated medical profession saw the uterus (in Greek, hyster) as a source of endless trouble and woe. Witness the space taken up by hysteria, ‘a functional disease oftenest observed in young unmarried women, in which there may be simulation of almost any disease and a great lack of self-control,’ and all its variants: h. major, ‘hystero-epilepsy,’ h. minor, ‘hysteria with mild convulsive symptoms,’ h. breast, ‘an hysterical affection of the breast occurring at menstrual epochs, in which the symptoms resemble those caused by pregnancy,' h. fever, h. gait, h. insanity, h. knee, h. mania, h. neuralgia, h. paralysis, h. pregnancy, h. stigmata, ‘the peculiar symptoms of every kind observed in hysteria,' and so forth. Thank goodness that, in the enlightened twenty-first century, the pharmaceutical industry has educated us, through television commercials, about the role of the male in intimacy gone wrong. In 1905, the poor guys (as males are invariably called in commercials for ED drugs or prostate-shrinking medications) had no idea that, in the event of an erection lasting longer than four hours, they should seek medical attention, and not wait until Tuesday night to brag at the weekly poker game.

As we continue our scatological scamper (assonance, 'a morbid propensity to use alliteration in speaking') through the dictionary, we encounter stercus canis 'dogs' dung. See album graecorum.' Curious as to why dogs' dung should appear in the medical dictionary, we scroll back to album graecorum [L. Greek white] 'the dung of dogs.' Getting no additional information from Lippincott's, we consult the web site of Uppsala University, and learn that in days of yore, Fido's droppings were indeed used for medicinal purposes. And not just any dogs' dung would do—it had to be aged, acquiring a white patina which was rich in lime salts. It was this white coating that was used both externally and—egad!—internally. In the seventeenth century, a doctor went so far as to publish a book entitled The Health Dung Pharmacy: How to Cure the Worst Diseases and Wounds from Head to Toe with the Help of Excrement. Returning to Lippincott's, we learn that the paradoxically named album nigrum 'the excrement of rats and mice' was 'formerly used both externally and internally as a remedy.'

I fear I may have given gentle readers the creeps or fidgets 'restlessness, with a desire to change one's position' (perhaps the precursor of the restless leg syndrome the pharmaceutical companies are so interested in today).

Instead of enduring treatment with black or white stercora in 1905, one may have been better off undergoing one of the many permutations of the starvation cure or hunger cure: limotherapy, peinotherapy,nestitherapy,or nestiatria. In the era before antibiotics, lues 'a plague or pestilence, especially syphilis,' was sometimes treated with the hunger cure, or it may have been treated with Cyrillo's ointment 'an ointment of 4 parts mercury perchloride 4 parts and lard 32 parts.' In any case, the prospect of being starved or slathered with toxic lard for the treatment of a sexually-transmitted disease may have resulted in some cases of cypriphobia 'morbid fear of sexual intercourse.' One positive aspect of the starvation cure is that one would be protected from lathyrism or lathyrismus 'chronic poisoning, with paraplegic symptoms, occasionally resulting from the use, as food, of the chickpea.' Go easy on the hummus, Pilgrim!

Given the epidemic of obesity in modern America, we might do well to adapt one of the archaic terms from Lippincott's. Instead of explaining to the massive patient, “Mrs. Orca, we are going to do a biopsy with this little needle,” the physician could state, “We are going to do a biopsy with this harpoon” 'an instrument for procuring small pieces of tissue from the living subject.' We should not, however, contemplate going back to Laborde's method 'a method of resuscitation in asphyxia, in which the tongue is alternately drawn forward and allowed to fall back,' which doubtless led to the discovery of Laborde's test 'a test for the determination of death, which consists in plunging into the substance of a muscle steel needles, which will be oxidized if life is not extinct.'

Thus concludes our aimless meandering through the 1905 medical dictionary. The tour might have been more scholarly and organized, but I fear I suffer from cramstunt, 'imperfect mental development resulting from over-study in childhood.'

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