We’re Never Far from Where We Were: The 1918 Flu Pandemic in Pictures

A little over a century ago, a different pandemic rattled the world when a third of the world’s population contracted the H1N1 influenza virus. A Dark Sense of Humor In this haunting photo, a man in Australia poses with a painted skull-and-crossbones on his mask. Straining the Medical System Military pathologists believe that a British[…]

A History of Quinine Drug Hype Since the 19th Century

The purpose was to sell more quinine and to remind the world that the Dutch empire was the provider of indispensable medicine. Big pharmaceutical companies have long over-promised the efficacy of their antimalarial drugs. This started a century ago, when European antimalarial producers began aggressively touting the curative effects of quinine on all manner of[…]

Smallpox and After: An Early History of the Treatment and Prevention of Infections

Introduction The scientific work that led to the discovery of the causes of infections was possibly the major biomedical advance of the nineteenth century. From it was derived the aseptic technique of Lister, the use of antitoxins and immunisation, and the ultimately successful search for chemicals selectively toxic to bacterial cells. The conquest of most[…]

Responses to the ‘Russian Flu’ in 1889

Information was scarce, conflicting, and often exaggerated. In November 1889, a rash of cases of influenza-like-illness appeared in St. Petersburg, Russia. Soon, the “Russia Influenza” spread across Europe and the world. During the 1889 outbreak of the so-called Russian Influenza, the media was overwhelmed by reports on the spread of the flu. In these early[…]

A History of the Yellow Fever Vaccine

The close of the 19th century also witnessed dramatic discoveries in the new science of bacteriology that would transform medicine forever. Introduction After failed attempts at producing bacteria-based vaccines, the discovery of a viral agent causing yellow fever and its isolation in monkeys opened new avenues of research. Subsequent advances were the attenuation of the[…]

‘Resurrectionist Times’: 19th-Century Cadaver Demand for Medical Research

Public outcry against these ghoulish deeds was great. This article, The History of Burke and Hare and of the Resurrectionist Times (1884), was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/ “Of all the criminal events that have occurred in Scotland,” George MacGregor[…]

The Deathly ‘Bird’ Costumes of Early Modern Plague Doctors

The costumes were meant to combat the contagious miasma. This article, Plague Doctor Costumes, was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/ Today, with the coronavirus now officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, images of hazmat suits and medical[…]

‘London’s Dreadful Visitation: Death during the Great Plague’ (1665)

This article, London’s Dreadful Visitation: A Year of Weekly Death Statistics during the Great Plague (1665), was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/ Epidemics are on all our minds right now. Probably many of us could use a break from the[…]

From Poison Peddlers to Civic Worthies: Apothecaries in Georgian England

Examining the slow transition whereby reputable practitioners differentiated themselves from ‘quacks’. Abstract Trust is not automatically granted to providers of professional services. The doctors of Georgian England were, by later standards, deficient in medical knowhow, particularly before the mid-nineteenth-century scientific understanding of antiseptics, and much satirised. Nonetheless, the emergence of a coherent medical profession indicates[…]

“Invisible Little Worms”: Athanasius Kircher’s 17th-Century Study of the Plague

Kircher’s investigation can be seen as an important early step to understanding contagion. This article, “Invisible Little Worms”: Athanasius Kircher’s Study of the Plague, was originally published in The Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. If you wish to reuse it please see: https://publicdomainreview.org/legal/ Introduction Living through the devastating Italian plague of 1656, the[…]

Chicken Soup and Other Remedies: A History of Jewish Medicine in America

An exhibit touring many sites where Jewish culture and medicine intersect. By Paula Wasley Introduction Your bubbe was not the first to notice the restorative powers of chicken soup, aka “Jewish penicillin.” The Egyptian Jewish philosopher physician Maimonides prescribed the broth in the twelfth century as a curative for respiratory illnesses—a recommendation that was backed up in[…]

Medieval Medicine: Astrological ‘Bat Books’ for Timing Patient Treatment

A handful of manuscripts remain which give researchers valuable insights into medieval science. Introduction Medieval doctors had to acquire a range of skills including an ability to read Latin texts, a working knowledge of the bodily “humours” and an understanding of the rudiments of blood circulation. Their diagnostic techniques were largely limited to examining a[…]

An Examination of Early Medieval Medicine

Come early medieval medicine has become real medicine, not scribal ignorance. Abstract The medical writings of early medieval western Europe c. 700 – c. 1000 have often been derided for their disorganised appearance, poor Latin, nebulous conceptual framework, admixtures of magic and folklore, and general lack of those positive features that historians attribute to ancient[…]

Lots of Leaking: Bloodletting since the Ancient World

It is claimed to have been the most common medical practice performed by surgeons from antiquity until the late 19th century. Introduction Bloodletting is the withdrawal of blood from a patient to prevent or cure illness and disease. Bloodletting, whether by a physician or by leeches, was based on an ancient system of medicine in[…]

A Hole in the Head: Trephination in Prehistoric and Ancient Times

Evidence for trephination occurs from the Neolithic period onwards. Introduction Trephination (also known as trepanning or burr holing) is a surgical intervention where a hole is drilled, incised or scraped into the skull using simple surgical tools. In drilling into the skull and removing a piece of the bone, the dura mater is exposed without[…]

Medieval ‘Cures’ for the Black Death

Since no one knew what caused the disease, no cure was possible, but this did not stop people from trying what they could. Introduction The Black Death is the 19th-century CE term for the plague epidemic that ravaged Europe between 1347-1352 CE, killing an estimated 30 million people there and many more worldwide as it[…]

The Cutter Incident: How Our First Polio Vaccine Led to a Growing Vaccine Crisis

The Cutter Incident led in part to the development of a polio vaccine that was more dangerous. By Dr. Michael FitzpatrickGeneral PractitionerBarton House Health Centre In April 1955 more than 200 000 children in five Western and mid-Western USA states received a polio vaccine in which the process of inactivating the live virus proved to[…]

Ignaz Semmelweis: The Doctor Who Emphasized Hand-Washing in 1847

A Hungarian obstetrician was the first to nail down the importance of hand-washing to stop the spread of infectious disease. Introduction One of the front-line defenses individuals have against the spread of the coronavirus can feel decidedly low-tech: hand-washing. In fact, it was 19th-century Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis who, after observational studies, first advanced the[…]

A Medical Journey to Ancient Rome

Review of a book discussing the history, religion, science, and technology of ancient Rome. By Dr. Migeul A. FariaAdjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.)Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery (ret.)Mercer University School of Medicine This is the third volume of the monumental A History of Medicine series by the medical historian and classical scholar Plinio Prioreschi M.D.,[…]

Doctors and the Invention of the Georgian English Seaside

Examining Georgian England’s new craze for sea-bathing. The Wellcome Library has a first edition of a book by a Sussex doctor, Richard Russell, published in 1753, entitled A Dissertation Concerning the use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands. Who would have guessed – Russell certainly didn’t – that this serious medical book would[…]

A History of Polio: A 20th-Century Epidemic

Incidents of polio increased to epidemic proportions after 1900. What was going on? Introduction Poliomyelitis (polio) is an infectious disease that can cause spinal and respiratory paralysis. Children are particularly vulnerable to the disease, which used to be called infantile paralysis. There is no cure and if the infection affects the lung muscles or brain[…]

The Black Death and Early Public Health Measures in the Middle Ages

With no accurate knowledge about the disease and the way it was spread, what could be done in the face of such horror? ‘Cito, Longe, Tarde.’ Hippocrates and Galen are colossal figures in the history of medicine, renowned for their wise and innovative advice on medical matters. When it came to plague, they offered similar guidance, rendered[…]

Mary Edwards Walker: 18th-Century Physician and Suffragist

Mary Edwards Walker defied convention in just about everything she did. Mary Edwards Walker was uncompromising in her beliefs about herself and the world she lived in. She declined to conform to social expectations, which sometimes cost her greatly; until her dying day Walker refused to be anyone but herself, a trait even some of[…]

Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome

The ‘Hippocratic’ four humours, Roman hygiene, the first hospitals, and home remedies. The Greeks combined dietetics, medicines, surgery and regulating the whole life-style in their treatment of ailments. Diet, or regimen – in the broad sense of the whole lifestyle – was the first resort. Individuals were advised on how to live in order to[…]

Monastic Medicine: Medieval Herbalism and Science

Examining modern remedies derived from medieval monastic knowledge. Most people think of herbal medicine as a distinctly ‘alternative’ option – something that you might try for a cough or cold that won’t budge, but not for life-threatening illnesses. Medical historian Dr Johannes Mayer, however, takes it all much more seriously: he believes that the herbal[…]

Ancient and Medieval Religious Belief and Medicine

The spirits and gods were believed to make their presence known through disease. Introduction When people fall ill they inevitably ask: ‘Why am I ill?’ and ‘How do I get better?’ Throughout history, the answers have been sought and provided through a mixture of natural, spiritual and moral meanings. People have rarely understood illness through[…]

Inoculation in the 18th Century

Vaccination led ultimately to the eradication of smallpox, one of the great achievements of medicine. By Arthur Boylston Introduction Early in the 18th century, variolation (referred to then as ‘inoculation’) was introduced to Britain and New England to protect people likely to be at risk of infection with smallpox. This triggered a number of important[…]