Kill or Cure: the history of the medicine we take by Steve Parker

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There is, somewhere, a mythical adult book-reading layperson who is relatively intelligent, but also ignorant – in the sense of uninformed on a particular topic. This person was the target of our new tome. But as regards the tome’s subject, almost everyone has some knowledge of, and some viewpoint on, medicine and how it got to where we are today. We are all, yesterday or tomorrow, patients.

While researching this most enormous and engaging of topics, I casually asked relatives and friends about their encounters with the medical profession. I got the usual mix:

• ‘The private surgeon for my knee op was really accommodating…’

• ‘My new GP thought Bach Rescue Remedy was a cure for OCD with Baroque music…’

• ‘I waited 9 minutes at my appointment for the latest in a long line of useless locum doctors, then I gave up…’

• ‘It took me 47 minutes just to get through to the receptionist…’

How could we tap into this foggy field of patient preconceptions, even prejudices, about various kinds of medicines through the ages?

What have the Romans and other ancients ever done for us – as regards medicine? As expected, plenty. From those earliest priest-physicians of Egypt, through Hippocrates of Greece and Galen of Rome, there seemed to be a patient thread. In those days ordinary folk led subdued lives and succumbed to whatever the doctor ordered. Most figures of authority subscribed to the same moveable feast of spiritual beliefs, which went: ‘I will say this and do that, but if it all goes wrong, then the gods have changed their mind, it’s not my fault, and we’ll have to start over. Again.’

The ancient patient obviously had no comeback because the gods were in charge. That is, at least as far as we know today, since few patients had the opportunity to make headlines then. During my research I met some of today’s patients who still have those inbuilt attitudes and near-zero opportunities.

Zap forwards to the extreme mélange that was medieval medicine. Johannes de Mirfield, a respected 14th Century physician of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, recommended the following medicinal bath: ‘Take blind [newborn] puppies, gut them, and cut off the feet; then boil in water, and in this water let the patient bathe. Let him stay in the bath for four hours after he has eaten, and while in the bath, he should keep his head covered, and his chest completely swathed with the skin of a goat, so he does not catch a sudden chill.’ The success rate was not recorded.

While I was researching, I met some patients who were similarly drawn to the latest outlandish fashion. Cranberry, radishes, ley lines near Lower Wallop, and so on. They too, like medieval medics, seemed not to be that interested in follow-up data.

Leap to the Victorian era. Medics are becoming qualified, certified, nationalized, institutionalized and deified (again). With a severely forbidding manner and severely uniformed nurses to match. Anaesthetics (1840s) and antiseptics (1850s) are the wondrous advances of the day. Some ordinary people are becoming more educated, but the masses are still largely unknowing. Those Victorian patients, by and large, queued for the next promising cure, and if they were still alive when it arrived, they accepted whatever it offered and the fate.

Some of the folk I quizzed during my recent researches have the same approach. Although looking up stuff online has become the 21st C hypochondriac’s total dream.

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So to today and of course tomorrow. My enquiries for Kill or Cure into what might happen in the next few decades flagged up gene therapy, personalized meds, more and more statins, memory-stimulants for almost everyone, and your very own spare-part organ bank grown from your very own pluripotentized stem cells.

Some of the patients I questioned were ready to die for those kinds of future cures. Others were totally sceptical, spat on the rolling juggernaut that is high-cost, resource-guzzling Western medicine, and went off to poor nations to help with water purification.

What were the results I took away after all this enquiring amongst family and friends? Doctors and medicine have certainly changed. But perhaps patients have not. As for Kill and Cure, I hope readers will appreciate what those who went before us endured, and come to the conclusion that, in health and medicine today:

HOW LUCKY WE ARE!

Kill or Cure: An Illustrated History of Medicine by Steve Parker is out now published by DK and available on Hive here

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