SF author Jim MacDonald has put another one of his excellent medical posts up at Making Light, this one on Why We Immunize.
He talks about the individual diseases there: their symptoms, their mortality rate in the past, and the development of their vaccines. That last detail coincides with some of the alchemy reading I’ve been doing — which you wouldn’t think, except that the eighteenth century was when chemistry finally started to pull itself free of its predecessor, as a part of a more generalized medical and scientific revolution that also included the development of the smallpox vaccine.
Here’s the thing that’s been striking me, in that reading: how frustrating it is to see the scientists of the past come so close to figuring something out, and then missing. The easier one to bear is Boyle and Hooke and their pals, who almost sorted out the combustion thing . . . but they didn’t yet have a means of handling gases (“means” = both tools and theory), so chemistry charged off down the bonny (and idiotic) path of phlogiston for another fifty years before getting back on track.
But it’s a lot harder to bear when the thing thisclose to being right is medicine. Paracelsus comes along in the early sixteenth century, says hey, this Galenic theory of humours is a load of bunk, I think diseases come from outside, and we should be treating them with chemical cures. From my seat here in a modern house with a cabinet full of chemical medicines not ten feet away, I’m cheering him on! . . . but then the iatrochemists (aka chymical physicians) get on a roll and start dosing people with, oh, antimony sulphide, mercury, and other things pretty well guaranteed to poison the patient, often fatally. Not that the Galenics were any better, mind you — their medicines were equally poisonous, just on the theory that they would help balance the humours — but I read about that, and I want to yell at the book, as if I could somehow reach back in time and make them get it right.
Eventually we figured it out. Even before we really knew what was up with germs, we figured out how to protect people from smallpox — where by “we” I mean that China and the Islamic world worked it out a couple centuries before Europe did, and India possibly even earlier than that, so let’s give credit where credit is due. Europe: not always smart. But I wonder what the history of Europe would look like if Paracelsus’ iatrochemistry had taken a more accurate angle, or foreign inoculations been recognized and adopted sooner.
It’s a good thing no one will ever hand me a time travel machine, or I’d pack up a giant case of modern medicines and zap around feeding them to people, destroying the time stream and probably getting myself burned as a witch.