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Electric eels and gladiator blood: the curious beginnings of modern medicine
Hippocrates overturned conventional wisdom and invented modern medicine.
- Ancient "medicine" once consisted of sacrificial offerings and divine petition. Disease was a supernatural infliction; health was a gift.
- Hippocrates invented medical science, and his theory of the humors and holistic health dominated Western medical thought for more than two thousand years.
- Today, medicine is much more disease centred, and perhaps something has been lost from the Hippocratic doctor-patient relationship.
You're feeling sick — so sick you can barely walk — and so you visit a professional. You wait outside, feverish and exhausted, hoping they can help. Your name is called. You start to explain your symptoms but are interrupted before you can get going.
"Let me stop you there", he says, "it's obvious what's happened. You've been cursed by the god Hermes. You must sacrifice two young goats and pray to him every day. I hope he takes pity on you. NEXT!"
You leave, still sick.
The doctor will see you now
This was the standard medical model of the ancient world. Priests and prayer cured diseases. That is, until Hippocrates reinvented the entire practice and defined medicine as a profession.
All we know of Hippocrates comes from a series of writings from the library at Alexandria, collected around 250 BCE. It's a mishmash of collected wisdom, case notes, and philosophy, composed by multiple authors over many years. But Hippocrates is the master and name that binds it all.
Hippocrates argued that sickness and disease can be understood by rational enquiry and had natural explanations (as opposed to gods or the supernatural). Man was just as much part of nature as chickens or cows and could be treated or cured in much the same way.
Because the Greeks had strict rules against dissecting or cutting a dead body, Hippocrates and the early physicians knew very little about human physiology. Most anatomical learning had to come from the gruesome mess of the battlefield — people (literally) carrying their arms or returning with gaping puncture wounds in their stomach. The only other way was by drawing parallels with the animal world. For instance, the Hippocratics believed human pregnancy was similar to how a hen nurtured her eggs.
Man was just as much part of nature as chickens or cows and could be treated or cured in much the same way.
Without microscopes or medical experimentation, Greek physicians were much more limited and took a holistic view of the body. Today, medicine is pretty heavily disease centered, in that it focuses on pathology, such as dysfunctional organs or microbial infections. For Hippocrates, sickness was a whole body thing — caused only when the natural balance and equilibrium of the body was disturbed.
A sense of humor
The humors blood (red) and phlegm (blue) are depicted in this document at Raeapteek pharmacy in Tallinn, Estonia.Credit: Alex Berezow
Hippocrates believed that the body was made up of various fluids, called humors, and different organs were responsible for their creation and regulation.
There were four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These all existed in the body, and when present in moderation or in balance with the other humors, a person was considered healthy. (It should be noted that black bile was often seen as being uniformly negative). It was believed disease resulted when one or more of the humors was overproduced or located in an incorrect part of the body. So, if you have too much phlegm, you will get a cough. Too much blood, and you would vomit. Too much black bile, and you would become depressed.
While we might find this ridiculous, you can see why the Hippocratics thought this way. Even today, we're often guilty of confusing symptoms with causes, and it's completely logical for someone to think that since the body is expelling phlegm during a cold, that must be the cause of the disease. Or how a nosebleed is caused by excessive blood. Or how diarrhea looks like yellow bile.
Of course, this sometimes meant that Hippocratic medicine offered some absurd treatments. It was thought, for instance, that epilepsy was caused by phlegm blocking the airways — the convulsing was an effort to open them — so warm dry climates were recommended. A regular prescription was for a patient being told to drink Gladiator blood for its potency. If you had a headache, it was suggested that you hold an electric eel to your head to force out the unwanted humors.
Has your doctor ever sniffed your stool?
It's hard to understate just how sick or infirm people would have been in ancient Greece. Thanks to modern medicine and public health, we're very rarely sick, and when we are, medicine is usually effective and easy to get. Antiquity, though, was a world of fever, food poisoning, water-borne infection, animal bites, and frequent, brutal warfare (and the ensuing infections). Today, being healthy is the norm. Back then, it was being sick.
It's not unfair to say that Hippocrates invented both prognosis and diagnosis. For the first time, a physician could say, "I know what's gone wrong, and I can tell you how it'll pan out."
As such, having an empirically minded (if misguided) physician class like the Hippocratics would have had huge success for the patient and physician alike. By seeing disease as an imbalance of the entire body, the Hippocratics took keen interest in their patients. They were frequently bedside and their examinations incredibly thorough. For instance, they would often taste urine or ear wax to check if it was okay. They would eat leg hair and sniff patient's stools. It's not unfair to say that Hippocrates invented both prognosis and diagnosis. For the first time, a physician could say, "I know what's gone wrong, and I can tell you how it'll pan out."
These physicians did not recommend drastic or intense interventions like surgery (not least because anything short of amputation would be fatal, anyway). They would prescribe lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, hot baths, and sex (which was especially important for older patients). They would constantly ask how patients are doing. They would check that they were taking their medicine.
Though practically none of the Hippocratics' medicine was anywhere near accurate, their bedside manner was quite different from the modern doctor's: "What's wrong with you? Right, here are your drugs. Good luck. So long." Hippocratic medicine used every trick necessary to re-establish harmony to the whole body. The doctor-patient relationship was just that — a relationship, not a transaction.
Hippocrates gave us two great gifts. First, he made medicine a scientific discipline in its own right. Second, he showed us how important it is to pay attention to the whole patient and respond to the totality of their sickness, including their mental state. Medical professionals worldwide still have to swear by the "Hippocratic Oath," which, among many other things, obliges doctors to "remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability."
Voltaire once said, "The art of medicine consists in amusing the patient, while nature cures the disease." This was no doubt true of Hippocrates. Surely, many of his patients recovered, but most often it was likely due less to his medical prowess and more to his patients enjoying a month-long spa with great food and lots of sleep.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.