Wednesday 18 March 2020

Frogs on Toast to Cure Cancer

CAPE ARGUS - 1939, January 14
In his talk this week Medicus deals with superstition in medicine and the healing power of faith.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” is one of those gems of wisdom which Shakespeare puts into the mouth of his characters, this time Hamlet, and it is especially true in the world of medicine. Or put it thus: “Believe a thing is so, and it is apt to become so.”
But there are beliefs and beliefs. One is faith which is well-founded, whether in a supernatural force, a friend or a physician; the is not so well-founded, amounting simply to a belief that what we greatly desire must happen.
There are also not a few people who, as Burton says in his famous “Anatomy of Melancholy,” almost seem to believe more in a thing the more incredible it is, who like to think that the impossible may happen in their case.
Now all those beliefs, we, as doctors encourage up to the hilt. Someone has said that patients think much more of their doctor than they do of his prescriptions so that his mixtures, pills and powders derive most of their value, from the fact that it is he who prescribes them.
I am not so sure of that, and confess that I myself, when a doctor refused to order me a mixture because he thought all I needed was more exercise, begged him to give me a bottle. And, wise man, he finally yielded, saying with a smile: “All right, here you are if it will give you faith,” and wrote out a prescription.
I also know how much happier patients leave a surgery or a consulting room when they can hug to their bosoms a bottle, or a prescription with almost as many drugs in it as bullets in a shrapnel shell, one of which is sure to hit the mark.
And the prescription, too, is written in dog-Latin and its quantities set down in almost cabalistic signs which came down from the Middle Ages.
I often wonder why we adhere to this medieval custom. Is it that the mysterious looms large, and that men, women perhaps more so, have a greater faith in the things they cannot understand? At any rate it is the best, as an old writer said, that mystery leads millions by the nose, and that even today superstition lurks deep in the hearts of minds of many even intelligent folks.
Certainly, in old-time medicine superstition ran rife, as the weird prescriptions unearthed on clay tablets from Babylon, Nineveh and Ancient Egypt show. But it does come with a surprise to learn that in the seventeenth century an ointment composed of the pulverized flesh of an Egyptian mummy, most scraped from the bones of executed criminals, bull’s blood and herbs collected in graveyards at a certain phase of the moon, was used by the great surgeons of Europe for 100 years. Lord Bacon, the man who not a few people think wrote the works of Shakespeare, believed in that ointment.
There was also the Sympathetic Powder, believed in by not only the Stuart kings and by distinguished learned men, such as Descartes, but also the foremost surgeons and doctors of that time. It did not cure by direct application to the wounded patient. All that was required was to get one of his blood-stained garments, soak them in a solution of the powder and, lo and behold, some mysterious emanations passed to the patient lying quite a distance off, and healed his wound. You may smile at this, but you cannot smile at the men who believed it. Here is another man whom you cannot ridicule, namely John Wesley, whose name men of all creeds and faiths united recently to commemorate.
Yet in a book entitled “Primitive Medicines or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Many Diseases,” we find the following passage:
“The fasting spittle outwardly applied every morning has sometimes relieved and sometimes cured blindness, corns, deafness, and warts.”
Here, too, was his cure for cancer, namely cold bath:
“This cured Mrs. B. of a cancer in her breast, of consumption, sciatica, and rheumatism which she had nearly 20 years. She bathed daily for a month and drank only water.”
That was 200 years ago, but when the American Society for the Control of Cancer offered £10 000 for a cure for that disease, 4 000 people of this twentieth century sent in co-called cures.
Not one of them came within an ace of securing the award; but I give a list of some of them in the hope that should any of my readers believe in any one of them they will not any longer waste valuable time on so-called cures, but go right off for early treatment by radium, X-rays, etc. – cures which have saved thousands and thousands of lives.
An outstanding suggestion was to catch a green-striped European frog, toast it in butter, rub it into a powder, and use the butter for a salve. Variants of this cure were to apply a live frog or crab or two to the growth till they died, or hold a live mole in the hand until it died, or to apply powdered centipede.
Others were to eat salt herrings, everything but the head, to drink water from a blacksmith’s cooling tub, never to eat anything grown by artificial manure, or with worms, to apply a hot torch, or lead with holes in it, petroleum, candle-grease or pig’s fat with sulphate of copper, onion-juice, turpentine, nicotine snails, spider-webs, horse-blood, goat’s milk, oil of cloves, blue clay, pepsin, pipe-amber, and carbonic snow.
Vegetable remedies used were acorn coffee, calendula flowers, cinnamon-tea, garlic, sorrel, cranberries, lobelia, red clover, hemlock, wild parsnip, willow-sap, sawdust and salt, chestnut powder, and saliva, phytolacca and pondlily roots.
Many of these are used to this day, despite their absolute uselessness. There were also cures alleged to have been made by chemicals, mechanical means, religion, spiritualism, and mystical rites.
Rheumatism has afflicted man for thousands of years, and it is to be expected that it has given rise to a host of superstitious remedies, weird or gruesome, reinforced by charms, amulets and incantations, as I have described elsewhere.
But let us come down to the Christian era, say about 1 000 A.D. Then a pilgrim from the Holy Land brought back the anti-rheumatic finger-ring, belief in which was to survive to this very day, Indeed, in USA those rings of iron or polished steel are being worn by thousands of matter-of-fact business men who believe that the rust formed on them shows the rheumatic poison is being extracted.
Others pin their faith on a tight copper wire worn round the waist. The ring is worn, of course, on the fourth or wedding-ring finger. The ancients believed that this finger had a special nerve running straight to the heart, and Roman doctors used to stir their heart-medicines with it to make doubly sure.
English country folk to this day believe that if you stroke a wart or stye with a wedding ring it will vanish immediately. That is better than the other ways of having the stye licked by a dog or struck nine times by a tom-cat’s tail.
And of course, we all know of folk who carry a potato or horse-chestnut in their trouser pocket for their rheumatism and swear by it.
Clearly, the, superstition still survives among us. True, sensible people no longer have a belief in charms and incantations, but it seems to me that what has taken their place is a pathetic and almost superstitious belief in the virtue of printed testimonials regarding, say, remedies from a sacred herb.
There is a curious instance of such an American preparation which attained a phenomenal sale purely through testimonials, no doubt genuine, from persons who believed it had cured them of almost every disease under the sun, from bow-legs and flat foot to diabetes, Bright’s disease and cancer. Yet, it was only sugar and water.
Another preparation, containing only olive oil, alcohol and water, brought glowing testimonials from blind folk saying that they actually seemed to be growing new eyes.
No, do not mistake me. All secret remedies are not frauds and quite a number of them contain valuable drugs. All I can say is that testimonials are not proof. I can show you how that can be from my own experience in practice. I was once asked to prescribe for insomnia, and my dispenser by mistake sent a coloured mixture of Epsom salts. The patient wrote saying it was the most wonderful sleep-bringer she had ever had, and so glowing a testimonial did she give regarding it to her neighbours that my stock of Epsom salts ran out.
Here is another typical case: A patient’s hair was falling out to the extent of baldness. It was a case which would recover of itself, and I explained this, but the patient insisted on treatment. I gave it and the hair returned as luxuriant as ever, with the result that another glowing testimonial to the wonderful treatment arrived and as the news went around, a host of such cases turned up.
I explained that no two cases were alike, and that where the hair papillae were dead, no treatment on earth would make the hair grow again. But it was no use. “Mrs…. had been cured by my treatment and would I give them the same?” So, I gave in, and the result was that out of well-nigh on 100 cases receiving the same treatment about six were cured and wrote me a letter of glowing thanks, while the other 94 I suppose must have been failures as I never heard from them.
This is the lesson – that, testimonials or not, what cures one person may not cure, or even may harm another. Yet another lesson is that Post hoc is not always Propter hoc – that is, that it may be Time and not our medicines which heals. This can be put in another way. One individual may have in his or her body a more potent Vis medicatrix naturae or inherent healing power than another.
To believe that the same drug can cure the same disease in every individual is nothing else than the grossest superstition, even though it is a common one in these enlightened days.

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