The Horrible History of Historical Hospitals

A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

I’ve been dipping into this book for some weeks since it arrived unannounced, and each time I’ve picked it up it has entertained magnificently. I took heed and  loved the warning at the end of McKeown’s introduction:

For best results, read not more than two chapters per day. Exceeding this recommended dosage ha no long-term ill effects, but may cause drowsiness and, in rare cases, nausea.

When thinking of the ancient medicine of the Greeks and Romans, most of us will gravitate to Hippocrates (4/5C BC) and later Galen (2/3C AD). I was glad to see that McKeown eschews the new PC terms bce and ce! I was unaware, for instance, that Pliny, although not a doctor, wrote extensively about natural medicine – as well as the history he is famous for, as did every other famous Greek or Roman it appears.

Each chapter is given a theme, and then McKeown lets the texts themselves do most of the speaking, with some pithy comments in between setting them in context. Many of the texts quoted have been translated for the first time into English. Thus we have sections on Medicine, Religion and Magic; Some Famous Doctors. Sex Matters; Preventative Medicine; Treatment and Cures among others.  Here are a few choice quotations:

Firstly from Medicine, Religion and Magic:

Many patients, especially the rich ones, absolutely refuse to take medicines or have enemas used on their stomach, and instead compel us to put a stop to their pain by resorting to magic amulets. (Alexander of Tralles).

Take several threads, preferably dyed with sea purple, put them round the throat of a viper, and choke it. Then tie all the threads round your own neck. This amulet gives amazing relief from tonsillitis and any growths in the region of the neck (Galen).

From Preventative Medicine:

Pork is more nourishing than any other food derived from four-footed animals, since it is the meat that tastes and smells most like human flesh, as some people have discovered when they tasted human flesh unawares. (Paul of Aegina)

Although McKeown acknowledges that vomiting was part and parcel of a bout of Roman hard drinking he puts us right about Roman villas having special vomitoria:

Roman vomitoria were the exits through which spectators exited en masse from the amphitheater. If vomitoria had existed in Roman houses, they would have been a mark of great decadence. Since they did not exist, we should assume an even greater level of decadence, with banqueters remaining in situ. It was not for nothing that the Roman architect Vitruvius recommended that dining rooms be equipped with drains and an absorbent layer of charcoal under the floor.

Finally, some wise words from Treatment and Cures, and General Medicine chapters:

A wise doctor does not chant magic spells when faced with an ailment requiring surgery. (Sophocles)

If he delays and gives it time, a doctor cures an illness more often than he does by operating on it. (Euripides)

Why do those who come in contact with some diseases fall sick, but no one becomes healthy through contact with healthy people? Is it because disease is movement, but health is rest, and disease moves things, but health does not? (Pseudo-Aristotle).

I’ve spared you the really gruesome ones. There is a glossary of names and places, but not a full index, which was a minor irritation when I wanted to find out if Pliny was quoted on the benefits of vinegar and honey – which I read unattributed in another book of Folk Medicine recently reviewed here!  However, this book was both fun and educational. (8/10)

I couldn’t finish this post, however, without a link to the wonderful Horrible Histories ‘Historical Hospitals’ series of sketches – one of which features Dr Galen:

See also Karen’s review here.


Source: Publisher – Thank you.

J.C. McKeown, A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities, (OUP USA, Feb 2017) Hardback, 288 pages.

Buy from Amazon UK (affiliate link).

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