journal, fun stuff

The archaeology of poisons and medicine

Greetings from a hospital bed in a friendly neighbourhood!

I rocked up to work on Saturday morning with what I thought was bad gas. I thought I would push through the day but it got difficult to stand and talk. Suspecting something was wrong, I left and checked myself into hospital. A few hours of worrying I would pass air in a busy waiting room, four different COVID tests and one blood test later, the doctors confirmed were extremely sure I had appendicitis.

Long story short, I had a laparoscopy (keyhole surgery) and am now minus one vestigial organ, dosed up on a good number of painkillers, and feel great (for the time being, as the drugs are working).

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In the spirit of what’s been happening, I got to looking around about anaesthesia, then poisons and drugs, and ancient medical procedures. So here is a post on them! Warning: Skip if you are squeamish.

• The word “toxic” comes from the Greek word toxon, meaning “bow”. The association likely comes from hunting, and archaeologists think that Paleolithic humans poisoned the tips of their spears to hunt, but to prove this happened is tricky. The detection of these poisons is an area of archaeological research.

• According to this article on the history of anaesthesia, the ancient Italians would put a wooden bowl over a patient’s head and knock them until they were unconscious so they could carry on with surgery. Certainly seems a lot cheaper than hiring an anaesthetist.

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• Once upon a time, people tried to get around feeling the pain of doctors cutting them open with opium and alcohol.

• The first successful application of anaesthesia as we recognise it today was done by a dentist, William Morton, in 1846. What a dentist was doing knocking someone out to remove their neck tumour I am not sure, but hooray for Dr. Morton! (?)

Trepanation is the process by which folks as far back as the Neolithic period literally bore a hole in people’s skulls to get rid of something bad in the person’s head. The procedure was possibly superstitious in origin than truly medical (eg to get rid of bad spirits). Trepanation is the oldest surgical procedure discovered by archaeology.

Hieronymous Bosch’s The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, c.1488–1516

Couching is the earliest method of getting rid of cataracts. A cataract is the clouding of the crystalline lens in the eye (almost universal in humans as we age), and couching is when you literally poke them with a needle so the opaque lens falls into the eye. It was documented practice as early as 800BCE in ancient India.

Sadly, couching is still practiced in developing countries, and trepanation in … developed* … parts of the world.

How are you this week? Know any poisons/medical related trivia? Do you still have your appendix? 

*See first comment on this post by Ashley L. Peterson.