Cumberland Times-News

June 23, 2012

Let’s look at medicine throughout the ages

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— My last week’s column was about our cells, intricate chemical factories that make up our body tissues and fluids.

Today’s column is a review of remarkable book, “Carrying the Heart,” written by Dr. F. Gonzalez-Crussi, a professor emeritus of Pathology at the Northwestern University School of Medicine.

This book focuses on five human systems: the digestive, the intestinal, the respiratory, the reproductive and the cardiovascular systems.

Dr. Gonzalez-Crussi has written a number of other acclaimed popular books. Gonzalez-Crussi is an accomplished story teller, both from medicine and related literature. “Carrying the Heart” was published in 2009 by Kaplan Publishing with ISBN 978-1-60714-072-6.

The early physicians such as Paracelsus and van Helmont (late 1500s) regarded the stomach as the source of the “life force” of the body. Later researchers struggled to understand the stomach’s role in the digestion of food.

The young American doctor William Beaumont was the beneficiary of a accidental musket wound to a young French Canadian, Alexis St. Martins. The accident occurred at Fort Makinac, Michigan where Beaumont was the Fort surgeon.

The discharge had blown a hole about a foot across in Alex’s midsection. Few believed that the French-Canadian would live more a day or two. But under Beaumont’s care, Alexis began to recover after 17 days as scar tissue formed.

But there was a fistula or tunnel that led to Alexis’s stomach, wide enough to put an index finger into. Alex had to lie on his back after eating or drinking, lest any food or liquids pour out. Beaumont was able to collect gastric juices and study the effects of different foods eaten by Alexis.

This led to Beaumont’s 1833 book, “Experiments and Observations on the gastric juice and the Physiology of Digestion,” which broke new ground in understanding the stomach.

William Beaumont died in 1853; Alexis finally died in 1880, at the age of 83 and 48 years after his musket accident.

The intestines and rectum were regarded as the vilest part of the human body until a few centuries ago.

Martin Luther in his book, “Table Talk” tells a story of a monk sitting on the toilet who was visited by the Devil. The monk responds to the Devil, “My prayer goes up to God, while what I leave behind is for you!”

During the European 17th and 18th centuries, enemas or clysters become quite fashionable. Regnier de Graaf had developed a new enema device with a flexible tube that allowed individuals to easily do the procedure by themselves.

Perfumed fluids were used to wash out the intestines and rectum. Some noble ladies, thinking that these enemas would delay aging and eliminate toxins, often underwent two or three enemas per day.

Breathing has been regarded as the essence of one’s soul. Stop breathing and the soul will depart your body.

Gonzalez-Crussi traces mouth to mouth resuscitation back to the Old Testament and cites how midwives would start newborns breathing by blowing into the baby’s mouth.

The author also covers the development of the stethoscope and the four distinct sounds as one listens to a patient’s trunk as they breathe deeply. (My primary care physician uses this in my routine physicals.)

   As regards the uterus, the Jewish philosopher Philo spoke of this organ as “the shop of nature” in which humans are formed. In Medieval times, it was thought that while lying on the left side, girls would be conceived. Conversely, it was the right side for boys.

Once the woman was pregnant, it was believed that the uterus would move around within the body.

Doctor La Peyronie of France had a great reputation as a surgeon and attracted royal patients such as Peter the Great, the King of Prussia, the Duke of Bavaria.

His specialty was venereal diseases. He applied pastes of mercury compounds to the afflicted areas, killing the tumors before it killed the patient!

EVENING SKY THIS WEEK: The moon is a crescent in the evening sky growing to half full on June 28. On that same evening, the moon will be near the planet Mars.

On June 29, the moon will appear to the right of the planet Saturn and the star Spica (below Mars). Brilliant Venus and bright Jupiter are splendid in the eastern dawn. Both shine steadily unlike the bright twinkling stars.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.