Dogma and the Triumph of Science in Medicine. At least for now.


Medicine has in its history a most frivolous period, wherein virtually anything that could be dreamed of for the treatment of disease was tried, and once fixated on as a cure, would be held fast for decades or even centuries before being given up as useless at best, and detrimental in general, most often based on nothing more than trial and error. A great deal of human suffering came at the hand of these medical practitioners as their belief in a practice as curative did not require the patient actually improve. During this time medical treatment caused far more harm than good, as a belief in Humors or Bad Air was considered the cause of most illnesses, and doctors did not sterilize their hands or instruments.

At one time, bleeding, cupping, purging, and fasting were all considered the pinnacle of medical science. The medicines prescribed for most any ailment were worse than the practices. These included the infusion of concoctions made from plants, ingesting the solutions of every imaginable combination of metals, diets restricted to one thing or another, often based on nothing more than the misunderstood imaginings of the causes of diseases. Medicine before the turn of the 20th century was not far removed from the same dogma as religion, concocted from the minds of so called scientists based on whims and opinions.

In retrospect it is amazing that the practice of medicine got away with causing so much death for so many centuries with so little public outcry. But don’t look now, unscientific medicine has been making inroads in the least likely place on the planet: the United States. In America today some practitioners I once again decrying science and opting for a simpler more down to earth treatment for physical and psychological ailments. I guess they miss the good old days.

During the 18th-century in America medicines were often made from botanicals. Most physician’s offices and druggists used a catalog of herbs that explained how they worked, where they grew, and what they cured. Of course during this time it was also thought that submerging patients in ice baths was an effective way of treating many elements including fever from influenza. Ice baths were also considered effective treatments for convulsions, plagues, typhoid fever, insanity, and of course got goodness. I suppose once the patient went into shock, they could be said to have been cured.

Another unscientific and I would argue dangerous belief system making a comeback is homeopathy. Homeopathy is the belief that treating them with something can cure a sick person that would give a healthy person the same symptoms. The idea, first proposed by the Samuel Hahnemann in Germany around 1796, his ideas quickly spread across much of Europe. Of course, every remedy was fashioned from something organic, said to of come from the earth. Practitioners of homeopathy do not believe in vaccinations or antibiotics, and instead use greatly diluted substances. Oddly, homeopath believe that the more a substance is diluted the stronger the potency or power of the treatment. If this sounds counter productive, that’s because it is.

Most scientists will agree that homeopathy relies heavily on the placebo effect. How else could a person being told that one part per billion, less than can be even perceived has curative powers? Purely psychosomatic.

It’s not simply a desire for a simpler time that has gripped the peripheries of modern medicine. The most significant improvements in the 18th century came from the scientific process of understanding disease, not as a product of evil, nor of night air, or as some imbalance of the four humors (Yellow Bile, Black Bile, Blood, and Phlegm) that had been first imagine by the ancient Greeks, but by some change, either internal or external to the balance of the body that interfered with normal functioning. Perhaps the most significant improvements to human health came from public health, which drove vast improvements and sanitation and hygiene during the 18th through the 20th centuries, along with vaccinations against childhood illnesses that once caused the deaths of tens of millions.

The use of vaccinations which began in the 18 century to battle smallpox, a disfiguring and often fatal disease that had become an epidemic in both North America and many countries in Europe. Another major disease, scurvy, often faced by sailors was found through scientific investigation to be caused by an adequate vitamin C. Treatment was simple: the use of fruits and vegetables to improve health (the vitamin C was not diluted one part per billion). What seems to be clear is that due in large part to the science illiteracy in America, the belief in what can only be deemed as a magical belief in centuries-old curatives.

The long habit of medicine prior to the 19th century was to treat every ailment with something, anything, often to the detriment of the patient. A treatment for sores, Cow Dung, was used for centuries despite not working, and often making the condition significantly worse. It seems not to have occurred to these men that some conditions, if left untreated, simply improved over time. Unless of course the patient sought medical treatment. Dr. Edward H. Clark of Harvard in 1876 espoused that patients with typhus and typhoid sometimes got better without treatment and certainly would have been the worse for the bizarre fermentations of herbs, the infusions of heavy metals, or other “treatments” that were popular just a few decades ago.

The art of medicine replaced what was considered the science of medicine; in reality the scientific approach to medicine came to replace the magic and belief of medicine.

And yet today we find ourselves once again happily and absent mindedly gazing back down the path we have, as a species trodden, from the dark ages of medicine and thinking how much better it used to be. If ignorance is truly bliss, it is an unhealthy bliss wrapped in the unscientific dogma of faith. Pass the Holy Water please. One drop per billion, thank you.


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