medical advances, and the missing thereof

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.

0 Responses to “medical advances, and the missing thereof”

  1. Marie Brennan

    No, but it’s on my Amazon wishlist now, for thinking about whenever I go back to secondary-world fantasy. (And hey, yours is the first review that comes up there!)

    City planning would definitely improve things. My trunk o’medicines does, of course, go along with a general recommendation of soap and other niceties of personal hygiene; but that does limited good when the cities are awash in shit.

  2. wishwords

    I have to share that bit with my husband. He grew up in a very bigoted family in rural Texas, and every time he finds out that the Eastern world discovered something before Europe he gets this deliciously confused look on his face. (Thank goodness he accepts the facts and doesn’t hang onto his grandmother’s ideas.) Of course, he also got that look when I told him that we had cable TV in Missouri, just like we do in Texas. Silly man, thinks the civilized world stops at the Texas state line.

  3. kizmet_42

    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.

    I wonder how much we’re missing.

  4. eclectician

    You should read Plagues and Peoples, which is the granddaddy of epidemiology books. Lis foisted it upon me.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think that’s the book we were using at her birthday party, the one where people were told to come dressed up as characters from books; anybody who showed up without a costume was going to be forcibly dressed as some disease or another. (There were circles of red construction paper for syphilis — I believe those did get taped to someone at some point — and avocado pits from the guacamole could have been used for buboes.)

  5. moonandserpent


    You, btw (and not horribly unrelated to this post) NEED to read Jonathan Hickman’s Pax Romana.

  6. zosimos

    What’s as amazing is how often people get something right and are ignored, or something we proved “wrong” comes back to being sort of right. Germ theory was proposed in the 16th century and didn’t get any real support until centuries later.

    Conversely the Galenic or traditional Chinese theory of the body as a system in need of balance was popular and got utterly destroyed by germ theory in late 19th and early 20th centuries with the successes of diptheria treatments and TB, but the concept (with more actual medicine) has been making a comeback in the later 20th and 21st century as a way to more fully understand the body and treat disease.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heck, the four-element thing of earth, water, air, and fire doesn’t work as elements, but it corresponds pretty well with states of matter — with fire either as plasma, or as the transformative agent for shifting between states.

      • zosimos

        Most alchemists looked at fire as a transformative agent so that’s a idea with some pretty solid history behind it.

        I suppose that means quintessence corresponds to Bose–Einstein condensate then, interesting idea but rarely seen by people.

  7. myladyswardrobe

    Not just medical breakthroughs were just “missed”.

    Electricity was discovered in the 16th century by William Gilberd who came from my husband’s home town of Colchester.

    William Gilberd is referred to as the “Father of Electricity”.

    As has been the case many times, he did not have the means to harness the use of Electricity as we do now.

Comments are closed.