One blissful afternoon a few months ago, when the summer heat was beating down upon us, I was curled up on the couch overlooking the Umpqua river. The river was flowing gently in the valley below. A deer and her fawn were grazing nearby, music was playing on the laptop, a book on the History of Medicine lay open in front of me, and every now and then, I read a piece out from the book to the family nestled nearby in various forms of ease. The unease surrounding Covid was there everywhere. (Grapes of Wrath).
History of Medicine is a somewhat misleading title for the book. Jane Goodall documented apes healing themselves by going to a cave miles away when they had stomach upsets, to find a herb to cure themselves. So, I am pretty sure healing ourselves has an evolutionary angle.
We must’ve all seen the viral quote by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who supposedly said that the first evidence of civilization was a healed femur bone, since usually breaking this bone in the animal kingdom means death by starvation or predators.
(I am not sure of the veracity of the quotation itself, but here it is)
In any case, I think the book addresses the last 200 years of practiced medicine.
“What are you reading about now?”, was a frequent query as I made my way through the ailments listed in the book.
I told the children the hilarious tale of Jerome K Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat feeling off and searching up his ailments much like many of us first do with WebMD.
“I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found, as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.”
“I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.”
― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
The history of medicine is a fascinating one. The book contained some black and white pictures too. There was a few pages dedicated to the sad tale of James Garfield’s assassination. Apparently, hand-washing was not a prevalent practice in 1881. Though the shooting itself was not immediately fatal to Garfield, infection set in to the wound in the days following the shooting essentially killing him. His shooter infamously said, “I didn’t kill the President! I only shot at him. The doctors took care of the rest.”
Given how often we wash our hands during these Covid-times, it seems like something elementary, but was such a problem even 100 years ago.
“I am so glad that human understanding of the microbial world has come such a long way in the past century!” I said after reading this piece out to the children. “Just think of this, within days of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus being shared, scientists had finalized the sequence of the antibody required to combat the virus. mRNA-1273
The author wrote about the time his mentor told him to document the symptoms of polio for posterity: this, at a time when the polio vaccine was not yet available. To quizzical glances, he apparently said with confidence that Polio will be cured within a few years. This was the sort of conviction and hope that is at once admirable and remarkable about the human race.
News of the corona virus vaccine is a welcome one indeed, and a true testament to Science. The first vaccines were distributed to 50 states in USA from Pfizer’s facility in Michigan today.
What is mRNA, and how do they work? Link from CDC
Like Bill Gates said in his 2015 TED talk, it isn’t missiles that we need to fear (since we now are invested in peace, knowing how we can annihilate ourselves many times over), but epidemics such as the Spanish flu. The coronavirus really did take the world by surprise, and showed us how we are all more interconnected than we realize – we are just a small pale blue dot floating in the cosmos – united in our destinies and apparently as weak as our vilest virus.