A Talk with the History of Medicine

I had never been to an archive before last Thursday, and I was preoccupied by the impression that archives were too serious to be accessible – it should be like a combination of a library and a museum, with all the precious old books, glass covers, and signs say “no photographs, no touching”. And to be honest, I’m not a big fan of museums, as they are seldom engaging. The exhibits are so carefully protected, and only the introductions nearby are interacting with me.

But Sandra from the McGovern Historical Center gave me a whole different view. Archives are for unpublished and original work, and more importantly, the works are in many different formats: video tapes, graphs, books and diaries are all included in the McGovern Center. To my biggest surprise, we can touch the exhibits, flip through the pages of books and bulletins, and actually feel the history of medicine at our fingertips. Sandra showed us a surgical kit used in the mid-1800s, before the germ theory of disease even existed. The instruments had very little similarity to the ones we see today, as they looked more of like screws and saws to me which don’t have much exquisite precision. Sandra brought up an interesting point that the handles were all wooden, which means that blood could sip into the cleavages and bred bacteria and germs.

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Surgical Kit, circa 1850-1880

Right next to the kit is a human anatomy book in Germen. Even though I barely know German, neither anatomy, I could know from common sense that the Germen doctors had already obtained a good knowledge of human bodies in the 17th century. Frankly speaking, I think that this diagram is very successful in showing the sizes and shapes of different organs and the entire skeleton with such limited technology. More specifically, the pancreas depicted in this book is consistent with the findings of modern medicine, and the cross section diagram on the right even demonstrates the interior vessels of pancreas.

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By Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680)

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By Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680)

532532097694092055I was astonished by this book, as it turned out that the start of medicine can be traced back at least to the beginning of the 1600s, which is much earlier than I first expected. However, the surgical kit that I viewed as primitive existed 200 years after this anatomy work, so what did the Germen doctors use to perform surgery on patients? It made me ponder on the question that, how many failed cases had there been before the scientists found out the mysteries of human bodies and presented their work in this book? How many patients had died in sheer desperation before modern medicine matured and made us strong enough to fight off smallpox and anthrax?

That was the point that I realized that there were so many cruel and bloody failures behind the progresses of science. Then I saw a manual of surgical instruments in 1900s, with the glow of the stainless steel shining through the fraying pages. I felt so glad but at the same time so sorry, but I couldn’t explicate. I finally walked out of the McGovern Center, with my mind filled up with the deep conversation I just had with the history itself, as well as the passion to explore more of human bodies, diseases and health.

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Cary’s Illustrated and Priced Catalogue: Surgical Instruments, Physicians, Hospital Supplies, and Furnishings, Drugist Sundries, etc. 1894

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4 thoughts on “A Talk with the History of Medicine

  1. One of the most interesting points that you brought up in your blog post was the fact that there were many cruel and bloody failures behind the advancement of medicine. Before reading your article, I never really considered what might have been sacrificed in the past couple centuries in order for us to have all the advanced tools and plentiful knowledge about medicine that we have and know today. I do agree with the point that surgery centuries ago would have been very painful to the patients due to the primitive surgical equipment. However, I do not think that those mistakes in early medicine should be called cruel and bloody failures. There were many people that died in the process of developing medicine, and there was a lot of trial and error. Because of these things, you could say that there were many cruel and bloody failures behind the progresses of science. However, I think that these so-called failures actually are not failures in the long run. Although it could have been a failure in the moment because someone might have died during surgery due to unsanitary conditions and equipment, these failures became learning experiences to help scientists and doctors develop the sanitary, successful medicine that we have today.

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  2. I agree with Hannah that trial-and-error is necessary for scientific progress, and, however unfortunate, must occur in medicine in which the stakes are high dealing with people’s health and well-being. The simple fact is that there is so much that we do not know about how health is maintained and are continuously developing more ethical procedures. The history of medicine will show some cases of negligence, but more so cases in which physicians did their best with the scientific knowledge available at the time to look after the well-being of their patients.

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  3. Just to clarify a few things here:
    I’m sorry that I used a phrase like “cruel and bloody failure” if that offended you, but as one who wants to dive into the medical field, I was simply referring to the deaths of patients, not medicine itself. I have the highest admiration for those doctors who explored the uncharted territory of medicine, for the greater good of people. I’m fully aware that the progress of science requires a lot of sacrifices, but at the moment, I was shocked by the fact that the lack of the simplest medical knowledge we have today once caused suffering and pain on so many patients. This is something I didn’t know before. Sorry again if that phrase bothers you.

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  4. Hi Hannah,

    I understand why you would be inclined to use the term “cruel and bloody failure” to refer to the number of patients whose lives were unintentionally sacrificed because of the limited extent of knowledge. I don’t know if the process was cruel, because the doctors were in fact trying to save lives and probably thought that what they were doing was in the best interest of their patients. The process is similar to the doctors in World War Z who perform transplants and treat patients with the intention of saving their life. I think the biggest gray area of medicine is that we are blind sighted by what we don’t know we don’t know, so just as the doctors in WWZ didn’t know if there was a better way to treat these patients, doctors of the past probably also didn’t mean to do any harm by using what we now consider today to be antiquated methods.

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