Today, we measure how far we've come. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Not until after the Civil War did
the germ theory of disease begin
falling into place. We didn't have effective means for
fighting microbes until long after that. Anesthesia was used only now and then
during the Civil War. Dentists drilled my teeth
for ten years before I first had the relief of Novocain.
The medical practice we enjoy is remarkably recent:
antibiotics, polio vaccine, most surgical techniques,
modern painkillers. Cancer has only recently become less
than a death sentence.
Now I hold the 1892 edition of a book first published in
1887. The author, a Dr. Stacy Jones, entitles it The
Medical Genius. In his preface he says,
[The] purpose of this book is to exhibit the pure
genius of our best drugs; as attested by the
undoubted cures effected by them in doses both minute and
This three-hundred page encyclopedia of remedies is
organized by agents: Acacia, Aconite, Alcohol ... each
followed by the cures it will bring about. Alcohol is
recommended for sore throat, itch, tooth decay, bedsores,
angina, and spotted fever.
The A's continue: Ammonia, Arsenic, Antimony. The B's
include Belladonna. Cabbage will draw the
infection from a wound, and Chloride of Chromium will
cure external cancers. Coffee grounds sprinkled on live
coals will clear out atmospheric impurities.
Hemp is recommended during tooth extractions. (And now
contemporary advocates are fighting for the use of
marijuana as a painkiller.) Certain pains might also be
allayed with a tea made from live honey bees. Myrrh is
recommended for a sore throat and Opium for Puerperal
Fever -- as well as for a drunken stupor.
We find Pepsin, Potash, Silica,
Silver, and Starch. And when the alphabet runs out, a
section tells us that Electro-Magnetism will heal
headache, delirium, baldness, poor eyesight, deafness,
pneumonia, and cancer. It will even help broken bones to
Another section, entitled Hints, tells us how to
diagnose death. (Place the end of the patient's finger in
an open flame. If the blister contains liquid, the
patient is still alive.) It also tells how to prepare an
anesthesia. (Mix one part chloroform with three parts
ether and two parts alcohol.)
I suspect that we might gain much by combing this old
book to find herbal remedies that contain useful agents.
And much of the book offers valid common sense. But so
much more is terrifyingly wrong. I've read many other
such books -- enough to know that Dr. Jones was not a
quack. He really represented the state of medicine just
over a century ago.
Historians aren't supposed to talk about progress. For
progress is so often illusory. But I put this book down
in a state of complete amazement at how much sheer
progress medicine has made in little more than my own
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.