Today, let's look at medicine when my grandfather
was young. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I recently picked up a
14-week course in human physiology for high
school students written in 1872. It makes a great
window into the recent past. The book's engravings
give a sane and balanced picture of our bodies'
workings -- a picture that's dated less by what's
said than by what's left unsaid, 126 years ago.
It begins with conventional anatomy: the skeleton,
muscles, internal organs. It calls the skeleton the
"house we live in," and it goes on about the
structural beauty of our bones:
The hand in its perfection belongs only to man. Its
elegance of outline, delicacy of mould, and beauty
of color have made it the study of artists; while
its exquisite mobility, and adaptation as a perfect
instrument, have led philosophers to attribute
man's superiority even more to the hand than to the
The author clearly thinks like a structural
engineer. He finished his book at the same time
engineers were finishing the Statue of Liberty and
the St. Louis Bridge. "The heart is the engine
which propels the blood," he says. "The skin is a
tough close-fitting garment for the protection of
the tender flesh." "Putting food into our bodies is
like placing a tense spring within a watch."
A book like this, written today, would lay far
greater stress on keeping that watch in good
repair. The author's health maintenance methods are
okay, but he goes little beyond lifestyle and
emergency care. Who'd argue with fresh air,
exercise, and clean living? He also sees the
dangers of tobacco more clearly than my generation
did. But he wrongly calls alcohol a stimulant, and
he recommends it as medicine when our "vital
energies" are down.
The huge gulf setting this book apart from
today is the lack of any germ theory of disease.
His section on False Ideas of Disease
explains how healers once thought evil spirits
caused sickness, while contemporary science has
... disease is not a thing but a state. When our
food is properly assimilated, the waste matter
promptly excreted, and all organs work in harmony,
we are well. Sickness is discord as health is
But he can offer only cold comfort when that
concord breaks down. His cures for illness include
purgatives, sweating, compresses, mustard plasters,
and beef tea.
This was medicine when my grandfather was young.
That recently, our world not only had no antibiotic
medicines, it also knew nothing of the germs that
antibiotics attack. It was a world where
anesthetics were still used only now and then for
surgery. A world without X-rays or even domestic
fever thermometers. A world where we fought pain
with camphor, cloves and sometimes opium. Blood
transfusions were known, but they lay out on the
far fringe of alternative medicine, in 1872.
And life was decades shorter.
Do you harbor any doubts that technology serves the
human condition? If you do, pick up one of these
old books. Find out just how much better we fare --
than Grandpa did.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds