Welcome to Interesting If True, where we actually trust doctors and scientists, despite the stories we cover.
I’m your host this week, Jenn, and with me are (introduce each host and their blurb)
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that birds are the most medically… applicable… animal. Like, they’re great when… applied 0_o
I’m Steve and I’m learning as I age that I should not have spent the last 10 years primarily on my ass. Now when I do pretty much anything I spend the next couple of days recovering.
Pain ain’t funny
Time for some medical facts in history! REE Ree ree…As we previously covered in episode 10 (Guns, Germs & Garfield), it was well into the 19th century surger that was a really terrible undertaking. I covered the yuckiness that was surgical work before the germ theory of disease was understood, so now let’s talk about what happened to help the experience be a little better than a last resort of unbearable agony, where the best you could hope for pain was a swig of whiskey and a swift surgeon hand.
Let’s travel back in time to mid-1800s. In those days, itinerant performers roamed the countryside as entertainers (since streaming services were literal streams at the time and people were so bored they had a dozen children). In addition to horrifying puppet shows and probably doing terrible things to farm animals, one ‘comedy’ routine involved demonstrating the silly side effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
As humans are wont to do, upon seeing the performers having a fun time completely out of their heads, the audience members wanted in on some of that action, too. This brings us to 1842, in the surely bustling metropolis of Jefferson, GA (nah, it was a rural dirty hovel). This is the home of pharmacist and physician Crawford Long.
Now, Jefferson, Georgia was having itself some ether parties, since apparently cow tipping had yet to be invented. When being invited to one of these said parties, Dr. Long was asked pretty, pretty please by his buddies if he could find a way to whip up some extra nitrous oxide, him being the cool pharmacist friend and all. But Dr. Long was all, ‘nah, bro, I know THE STUFF.’ and instead introduced the party to sulfuric ether, a “compound he himself had found suitably diverting”.
Party at Crawford’s!
Anyway, it was soon pretty clear that hopped up on ether, the partygoers giggled and stumbled and slammed into furniture, themselves and the floor, but surprisingly, felt no pain. Once he sobered up, Dr. Long began to ponder on the implications of that.
Well, next ether happy hour (or March 30, 1842)) Dr. Long decides to put his buzzed hypothesis to the test. One particular fun time party guy, James Venable, had a tumor on his neck and what do you know? Dr. Long had James sniff some ether and excised that tumor with no apparent pain.
Fun Americana roadside attraction side note: The town of Jefferson, GA has a museum and mural dedicated to Doc and the Tumor. Per roadsideamerica.com and Jeff:
I passed through town before the museum opened, but the anesthesia mural is visible from the street. The mural is excellent – a combination of bright colors, dramatic expressions, and a grotesque cyst.
Now, you may possibly have heard this story already. As a native Georgian, I vaguely remember this in my 7th grade Georgia history. Long is often considered the ‘Father of Anesthesiology’, but he isn’t who made it mainstream. The story always ended with something like: Dr. Long was still not fully convinced of his discovery and delayed publishing his findings. But that’s not the whole story.
Before I fill in the gaps with the kind of history that isn’t taught in schools, here’s a very brief runthrough of how anesthesia became widespread: Only two years after Long removed the party tumor, a Hartford, CT dentist named Horace Wells also attended a laughing gas show and had much the same idea as Long. He performed quite a few successful demonstrations, but when it was time for the big show at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston things went somewhat awry.
“Descriptions of the patient’s response to the extraction of his tooth are fairly consistent. According to Wells, the patient experienced some pain, but later stated that the pain was “not as much as usually attends the operation.”4 Wells attributed the failure of complete insensibility to the fact that he had withdrawn the bag too soon.4 Some observers considered it a “humbug affair.”
A similar description was provided by Taft:
“A tooth was extracted from one person, who “halloed somewhat during the operation, but on his return to consciousness, said he felt no pain whatever.” Curtis thought the patient did not appear to experience any pain, but some of the students believed it was an “imposition.” (Dr. William) Morton was more dismissive, “Dr. Wells administered the gas, and extracted a tooth, but the patient screamed from pain, and the spectators laughed and hissed.”
Sadly, poor dejected Horace gathered up his toys and went home. But dismissive Dr. Morton (who had actually once practiced dentistry with Wells) took the idea and ran with it. He began to work with ether and was soon practicing with it on patients. Just two years after the embarrassing performance from Wells, Dr Morton did his own presentation at Massachusetts General Hospital, having added “aromatic oils” and no references to poor Wells. This time there was a different ending, and by the Fall of that year the hospital’s chief of surgery used ether in the first official leg amputation under anesthesia.
There followed quite a bit of angry old white man controversy for the title of official discoverer. Dr. Morton was the loudest, after he patented his smell-good ether and hoped to make a fortune. When visiting New York City for a legal battle with chemist Dr. Charles Jackson, Morton had a seizure and died.
He did sort of have the last laugh in this though. The story is Jackson saw Dr. Morton’s headstone, which gave him (Morton) credit for the discovery and Jackson promptly went insane. He spent the remainder of his life in an asylum.
Saddest ending was poor Dr. Wells, who I guess never got over his failed shot at success. He became addicted to chloroform and, when confined to a NYC jail cell, soaked a cloth in said drug, severed an artery and quietly bled to death.
But we’re not quite finished. Let’s swing back around to Dr. Crawford Long, who was apparently too timid to publish any findings after ‘party tumor’ and for all Georgia classroom intents and purposes stopped everything but surely hardcore laughing gas parties. Again, that’s not exactly the story.
‘Party tumor’ was March of 1842, but in July of that same year he again performed a surgery with ether anesthesia. But here is where we enter the ugly part of history. This is when Dr. Long decided he needed to make sure the ether was really working and began to experiment on slaves. Remember, this is rural Georgia in the 1840’s.
I found this information on blackreasearchcentral.com. As an aside, I didn’t realize I was going to discover this until I started researching this episode, but couldn’t not share this. Our history is white-washed enough.
The July surgery involved a young slave boy who needed two toes amputated. Apparently he had been severely burned and with infection surely setting in, at least this was not frivolous. The first surgery went well, with Long noting: “...the operation was performed without the boy evincing the least sign of pain.” Fantastic, right? Well, we have to remember the second, control, toe.
From the records of Brazialian anesthesiologist Almiro dos Reis Júnior:
“The boy agreed in being submitted to anesthesia. Long put him to sleep and amputated one toe with no patient reaction. Incredibly as it may seem, to prove the action of ether, he amputated the second toe without anesthesia. This time the boy has desperately shouted and thrashed about so violently that Long was forced to restrain him to finish the procedure; only then he was convinced that ether was responsible for the lack of sensitivity and not the mesmerian forces he thought he had.”
(side note: to prove the boy really felt no pain in the first surgery, Long requested a letter from a Mrs. Hemphill of Jackson, GA, the boy’s master.)
As awful as that is, now at least Long has his answer right? No more experimentation without the benefits of anesthesia, surely. Unfortunately, that’s a big no. There are records of Long conducting such surgical experiments as late as 1845, with this one involving another boy who needed two fingers amputated.
From the records and what I have read, it doesn’t appear that Long tried to be needlessly cruel (he was no Dr. Menegle), but he was reflecting the prejudiced mindset of the times. Most educated white doctors assumed it scientific fact that black people did not feel pain like white people. In fact, that sort of internalized racism is still demonstrated today.From an article published in Jan of 2020:
‘40% of first- and second-year medical students endorsed the belief that “black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s.”
What’s more, false ideas about black peoples’ experience of pain can lead to worrisome treatment disparities. In the 2016 study, for example, trainees who believed that black people are not as sensitive to pain as white people were less likely to treat black people’s pain appropriately.”
One more example of why the enslavement of a huge portion of our country’s population has lasting ramifications, even though slavery was made illegal a century and a half ago. But that is opening up a can of electric eels for another show.
Sorry to start wrapping this up on such a heavy note, but I couldn’t learn this part of the story and not include it.
To finish the: ‘where are they now portion’, after serving in the Confederate army’s sanitation service (I don’t think that means what we think it means), Long lived until 1878, where he dropped dead during a house call.
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Yee-Oldie Plague And You!
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Today’s Patron story is brought to you by the letter “P” … for plague.
Ye-Oldie Euro-super-death to be specific.
As many of you may be aware, we’re in the middle of something of a plague of our own. Tragically, many among us would gladly choose a more “natural” or “traditional” cure—but what are they actually asking for?
In today’s Medieval Medical Mediocrity… Mini!, we’ll answer just that.
When the plague struck in 1348-sh (depending on where you were I suppose) medical knowledge boiled down to… well… not nearly enough boiling to be honest.
They had leftovers of the Greeks and other classical doctors, a favorite was Roman physician Galen—not to be confused with 2370’s most notorious artifact smuggler. Most of the cures that came from antiquity broke down into five categories:
- Animals cures… like wearing a pigeon.
- Potions, Fumigations, Bloodletting and salves… basically, rubbing some dirt on it and then blowing smoke up your ass.
- Religious cures, or as they’re now known, thoughts, prayers, and maple syrup.
- And finally, Quarantine and Social Distancing.
I’ll give you three guesses as to which of these might have actually helped…
Unfortunately, social distancing was about as popular then as it is now… largely because people are still just as stupid. Most people just continued on with daily life, commerce, and religious services—think, “Florida” basically. The Ye-Oldie Scrooge’s of the world, however, bought their way out of plague zones and waited out the Black Death in country estates, just like our first medical inventor Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton is, of course, famous for hard to explain math-junk, and I’m pretty sure he invented gravity. What he wasn’t was a healer. When faced with plague Issac did the only sensical thing. According to a two-page document from Newton currently up for auction at Bonhams, the auction house selling Cambridge’s stuff, he looked back to the “Tumulus Pestis” (“The Tomb of the Plague”) by Jan Baptist Van Helmont, a chemist, physiologist and physician under the Holy Roman Empire’s Spanish Crown.
By his reckoning, the best way to treat plague was by lozenges. First the patient was covered in the most powerful of medical sapphires, ambers, and other amulets, then came the big guns, toad-vomit!
Now… how might you turn a toad into an edible… Steve?
So nearly correct. You do need to make use of the legs though. Newton describes, in gory detail, how to hang a toad by its legs, preferably in a chimney, for at least 3 days until it vomits up “earth with various insects in it.” Crucially, this vom must be collected in a “dish of yellow wax.”
Right off the bat we’ve got some problems with this treatment, never-mind that three days of visible symptoms was about how long it took folks to die. What were you to do if your ye-oldie hovel was without a chimney? Or if you couldn’t catch a frog? Or if the frog was super-crazy poisonous!?
Carrying on, Newton explains that the toad, now barf-free and dead, should be allowed to continue to dry in the chimney until it could be crushed into powder, to be mixed with the vomit. Now that you have what I can only describe as the single grossest thing I’ve ever heard of, it’s time to make your lozenge.
So, take the … gross … and, using some of that don’t-ask-why-it’s-yellow wax we talked about, coat a portion of the ex-frog and it’s lunch until completely sealed. Then the, again scare quotes, “curative” can be taken as needed until the patient recovers, or far more likely, dies horribly.
“Newton’s notes are not verbatim transcriptions of Van Helmont’s text, but rather a synthesis of his central ideas and observations through Newton’s eyes,” according to Bonhams.
Now that everyone is green in the face with… envy at Newton’s very stable genius, let’s see if you’re up to the task of being a plague doctor!
Panel: What was the “Vicary Method” of curing plague?
That’s right! Named after English doctor Thomas Vicary one first plucked the feathers from the back and rear-end of a chicken. Then the bare areas of the very much still alive check was strapped to the “swollen nodes” of the patient. When the enraged, half-shaved, chicken began to show signs of illness… or, you know, not being fed… it was assumed the chicken was drawing the illness out of the person. Therefore, you should wash the chicken and reapply it until one of them died.
But panel, what was one to do if you were chickenless?
Naturally, use a snake! The trick is to find and kill a snake, then chop it up into bits and run the various ex-snake chucks all over your body as if it were some kind of diet-coke, wingless, pigeon.
Speaking of pigeons, for a bonus point, panel, where was the best place to put a pigeon to cure plague specifically?
That’s right all over yourself. While applying a slit-pigeon to the soles of your feet is sufficient to cure malaise, the plague requires a more drastic application. The pigeon should be prepared with a mortar and pestle, then spread all over the sick person’s body. This practice was commonly called a Quentin Tarant-Tar and Feather.
Panel, we’ve talked about some powerfully curative animals, but what was the most sought after medical-mammal and how was it used?
Naturally, a unicorn. And while the Grand Wizarding TERF was close, she missed the mark ever-so-slightly. It’s not the unicorn’s blood you want to drink, but a kool-aid style mixer made from powdered unicorn horn. This was considered to be the best in medical care as it was nearly impossible to find powdered unicorn horn. The beast needed to be lured in by the song of a naked, virgin maiden, captured, and powdered. Also they aren’t real, so that probably drove costs up.
Panel, supposing you’re all out of non-animal… animals, what treatment might your doctor prescribe?
That’s right, a Cleaved Steamer. The plague-riddle person, who one presumes hadn’t yet suffered enough, took the Browns to the Super Bowl, then the “doctor” would cut open the plague boils and rub the Dutch Pancake batter into the patients open sores to “drive away the disease.” On the up side, few patients who underwent this treatment died of plague.
Panel, along the same main-vein, what traditional cure is still in use today?
That’s right, a Presidential Bath! Apparently bathing in, and drinking pints of, urine would cure all manner of aliment. So believed in was this that, apparently, “clean” urine farmers were a thing! Who knew? Yep, you do now.
Panel, let’s say you don’t have any birds or snakes, and you have a date later so you don’t want to do the two gross things I just explained. What common household items might you be able to pull from the pantry and cure yourself with?
That’s right, onions, herbs, vinegar, powdered gemstones, arsenic, mercury, and tentacles. Yep, tentacles. Because when you need something to really get up in there and roto-rooter out the infection, accept no substitutes plague-chan!
Panel, perhaps a mixed drink is more your speed? What might a plague-beating barista make you?
Four Thieves Vinegar of course. A mixture of cider, vinegar, wine, and spices such as sage, clove, rosemary, and wormwood. Because if you’re gonna die terribly, you may as well be drunk. Fun fact, this “cure” is still used today by Homeopaths, because they’re dumb.
Ok panel, it’s Finale Jeopardy time… so, umm, I guess bet points if you want to… what was the most popular treatment among the wealthy?
That’s right, Theriac. Scholar Joseph A. Legan notes
“it was very difficult to prepare; recipes would often contain up to eighty ingredients, and often, significant amounts of opium”
It was meant to be a paste that was mixed with syrup and consumed as needed.
Other cures often involve prayer, clearing out the “bad air” from the person’s lungs, house, or blood, the usual blowing smoke into your butt (literally), or just carrying flowers about to prevent infection.
It was this practice which gave rise to the children’s rhyme “ring around the rosy/a pocket full of posie/ashes, ashes, we all fall down” in reference to the practice of filling one’s pockets with flowers or sweet-smelling substances to keep one safely fumigated at all times.
As the rhyme suggests, this was as ineffective as any of the other cures.
I’m Jenn, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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