This brief history of the worst ways to cure everything is the ideal nonfiction primer on the many ways humans have attempted to extend and enhance their lives through the years. Written by a practicing medical doctor, Lydia Kang, and historian / librarian, Nate Pedersen, the book reads like a duo of friends explaining to you the various ways science put the cart before the horse and why we should be grateful to have been born late enough to avoid so many of these treatments.
A tour of medicine’s most outlandish misfires, Quackery dives into 35 “treatments”, exploring their various uses and why they thankfully fell out of favour – some more recently than you might think. Looking back in horror and a dash of dark humour, the book provides readers with an illuminating lesson in how medicine is very much an evolving process of trial and error, and how the doctor doesn’t always know bests. from Book Depository.
This book is divided into five different divisions. Elements, Plants and Soil, Tools, Animals, and Mysterious Powers. Each divisions covers both the history and the science behind a variety of techniques or thoughts about certain cures. Interspersed with sarcasm and dark humor, this book’s only downside is the inclination to read whole sections out to family and friends and become that person that just won’t shut up about they book they are reading.
Elements was, by far, my favorite section but that is because I am fascinated by poisons right now. In this section the authors comb through the various uses and reasoning behind using mercury, antimony, arsenic, gold, and radium. It turns out that in the past, being extremely pale but also plump was a difficult ideal to meet naturally. Apparently no one ever tried sitting inside during a pandemic and just eating through your food supply. Arsenic gave you all that and a painful death! I’ll take my lockdown and donuts please.
Plants and Soil were almost as fascinating because this section covers opiates, strychnine, tobacco, cocaine, alcohol, and earth. I knew that alcohol was used medicinally. But I had no idea that strychnine was considered an energy booster that was recommended to athletes. The 1904 winner of the Olympic marathon, Thomas Hicks, was given two strychnine doses and finished the race clearly in the throws of strychnine intoxication. Also of note, drinking water was considered unhealthy for athletes during this time.
This was also the section where I became completely annoying. After all, here is where I learned the origin of the term, “blow smoke up your arse.” Anyone over the age of 65 probably had someone blow tobacco smoke in their ear. It was a commonly recommended treatment for earaches. But, British physicians took it to the next level when they recommended a nice tobacco enema for any drowning victim. There was a whole organization dedicated to this cause! Just picture people walking up and down the banks of the Thames with their enema kits ready to pull someone out and save a life! There is no mention in this book on whether it worked (ever) but this is the fact that I just couldn’t stop taking about. Etymology, history, and science are rolled into renegade lifeguards? Yes, please!
After this section the book covers tools, animals, and mysterious powers. I enjoyed each of these sections in turn but the book had already won my heart. Although, the section on corpse medicine shouldn’t be read while eating…
It seems only fitting that, as I was finishing this book, President Trump was loudly touting the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a promising treatment for COVID. Meanwhile Dr. Fauci, a veteran of outbreaks dating back to the HIV crisis here in America, emphasized a need for methodical clinical testing prior to taking these medicines. I am generally not pleased with our President but I would be more than happy to celebrate his instincts being correct in this situation. However, after reading Quackery, taking a medicine on a hutch smacks of another “worst way” to cure our current crisis.
This book emphasized what I have long held dear – quality testing. I don’t want anecdotal evidence that the King’s touch cures boils. Prove it to me. One of my biggest take aways from the whole book is that it was probably a good thing that so many people couldn’t afford medical treatments for large parts of history. Because, certainly, the radium spa would set you back a pretty penny. And, in a time when blood soaked aprons were the mark of a good doctor and hand washing wasn’t a thing, I don’t know that turning to a professional did anyone much good.
Tell me, please!
If you had to pick, are you more interested in science or history?