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“The midpoint in medicine between excessive emotional involvement with patients and a complete lack of empathy is not a simple one to locate”*…

 

elphant nose

 

In sixteenth-century Leuven, a troubled man sent for a physician to help him with his unusually long nose. The man believed that his nose was of ‘such a prodigious length’, it resembled the ‘snoute’ of an elephant. It hindered him in everything he did, to the extent that sometimes it ‘lay in the dish’ where his supper was served. His physician, at this point, artfully and carefully, ‘conveighed a long pudding’ onto the nose of the desperate man, and then with a Barber’s razor ‘finely cut away’ the offending pudding nose while his patient was drowsy from a sleeping draft. The physician prescribed him a wholesome diet and sent the man away, relieved of his extraordinarily long nose, and the burden of ‘fear of harme and inconvenience.’

This case history was described in the English translation of the medical treatise, The Touchstone of Complexions (1576) by the Dutch physician, Levinus Lemnius, as an example of ‘melancholicke’ fantasy. Instead of assuming the man was possessed by a malevolent spirit or demon (a possible diagnosis at this time), that he was a ‘lunatic’ and beyond treatment, or dismissing his delusion to his face, the sixteenth-century physician in the story entered into the world of the ‘phantasie’ to try and help his patient’s obvious distress.

We very rarely read histories of incidents from this period where physicians are concerned for the emotional and mental wellbeing of their patients to this degree. Usually the tendency has been to emphasize the ‘barbarous and debilitating’ treatments of early modern medicine – its bloodletting, purging, and surgery without anaesthetic, or to highlight the moralizing religious doctrine behind treatments of illnesses of the mind or ‘passions’. Yet, here was a doctor trying an imaginative solution to a problem he believed stemmed from an imbalance of the humour ‘melancholy’ in his patient’s body….

More examples of empathetic early healers and the bizarre cases they “cured– the man with frogs in stomach, the man whose buttocks were made of glass– at “The Man with an Elephant’s Nose.”

* Christine Montross, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

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As we make it better, we might send revolutionary birthday greetings to Edward Donnall “Don” Thomas; he was born on this date in 1920.  A physician and medical researcher, Thomas shared (with Joseph E. Murray) the 1990 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work in transplanting bone marrow from one person to another – an achievement related to the cure of patients with acute leukemia and other blood cancers or blood diseases.  Although this prize usually goes to scientists doing basic research with test tubes, Thomas was a doctor doing hands-on clinical research with patients.

230px-Edward_Donnall__Don__Thomas source

 

Written by LW

March 15, 2019 at 12:01 am

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