Disease—What Were They Thinking?

Sometimes I think about the history of human knowledge and discovery of the sources of disease. I muse over all the strange and bizarre ways that people from past times believed caused illness. 

There was lots of weirdness. At least from our current place of knowledge.

The easiest place to lay blame is on the sick person. “Divine retribution” for living a sinful life is an easy diagnosis to make. 

Bad air was another logical choice for the cause of illness. “Miasma theory” was an attempt to pin down a cause and effect.

“In miasma theory, diseases were caused by the presence in the air of a miasma, a poisonous vapour in which were suspended particles of decaying matter that was characterised by its foul smell. The theory originated in the Middle Ages and endured for several centuries.”

Because curbing the stinky air also tended to remove bacteria, it was helpful, in a sideways manner. It lasted until germ theory gradually replaced it.

The theory of “Humours” was the first attempt to separate out disease from the spiritual realm to the physical one. The four generally accepted humours were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. An imbalance of your humours caused illness, and there were ways to restore that balance, such as purges, bloodletting, and emetics. Foods and medicines were given that corresponded with the desired balance. If you were hot and wet (with a fever), cold and dry substances were prescribed. And don’t let hysterical women eat beef! Much too hot and red for calming effects.

I should respect humorism because it was a scientific method rather than superstition, but I have a hard time. Mostly because it lasted so long, not completely dying out until 1858. It amazes me that medicine accepted it for about 2000 years, not really testing it out, just hanging on to it, respecting that important people had brought it to them. (Hippocrates, Galen) And perhaps they were enamored because it is a lovely theory with lots of impressive things you can do for treatment.

It doesn’t take us 2000 years to shift medical theories anymore; we respect science as the institution that can find physical cures, without the conflict of spiritual beliefs or non-tested attractive ideas. 

But I do wonder…what do we do today, what do we think that is totally wrong? That people a thousand years from now will shake their heads in disbelief over? Perhaps we can’t even imagine what that could be, because we don’t have the tools, just like the people from the middle ages had no device to see germs.

I’m sure there is something…

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