With a couple of hours to kill in the rain yesterday morning I had a look around the Wellcome gallery. I learned some important lessons…
Got a headache?
Pre-historic society obviously thought that trepanning, or drilling/scraping a hole in someone’s skull, was a wonder-cure. At one burial site in France, nearly one third of the skulls had been trepanned. But it wasn’t just the ancients who used it – it was a common treatment right up until the 19th Century. Apparently it was a known cure for migraines. I’m imagining the conversation now:
Patient: Doc! I’ve got a really bad headache.
Doctor: Not to worry, I’ve got just the thing to sort that out.
Doctor: Now just lie down here while I get my drill.
Patient: Your WHAT! Why do you need a drill?
Doctor: I’m gonna drill a three inch hole your head.
Patient: Like hell you are! Is your name Dr Shipman?
Doctor: Calm yourself, most patients survive.
Patient: Oh super! Well can you at least put me to sleep?
Doctor: No can do, anaesthesia won’t be used until the late Victorian era I’m afraid.
Patient: Well what about infection? – I’m going to have a gaping hole in my head.
Doctor: Antibiotics won’t be invented until the 20th Century, but don’t worry, I have wiped the drill on my butcher’s apron since using it on my last patient.
Patient: You know what! My headache is suddenly feeling a lot better.
OK. Now we are on to a very sensitive topic… literally! The nasty looking devices above are penis rings. They were designed to stop young men from becoming aroused, especially at night.
Imagine the scene: Billy is asleep and dreaming of Eliza from down the lane… he watches as she lifts her skirts slightly to avoid getting them wet in a puddle and can see a flash of pale ankle exposed. Billy has never seen a girl’s ankle before. He smiles in his sleep and then… “OH MY GOD! WHAT THE F%$£!” He looks down at his bed clothes and they are wet with blood.
If you ever needed an example of Victorian puritanical sadism, surely these devices are proof positive.
Who needs doctors anyway?
Have a look at the picture of the picture above. In case not clear, it shows a seated woman with blood pouring out of her nose and into a bowl. Another bowl full of blood is also on the floor. A doctor stands next to her doing nothing and with his arms folded. The same woman is also depicted standing up looking better and holding a clear glass while staring at an image of Christ on the cross. The moral of the story? If you have a nose bleed, don’t bother with a doctor, just pray to Jesus and it will get better.
As a cynical atheist, I would interpret it slightly differently: If you have a nosebleed, don’t bother calling a doctor or praying. Just sit with your head slightly back and wait for the blood to coagulate. I would posit, that unless she had some kind of blood irregularity, it would have been rather more ‘miraculous’ if the blood had continued to flow than if it had stopped. But… interesting painting nonetheless.
If you find yourself living at almost any point up until the 20th Century, I would advise trying to avoid seeing anyone from the medical profession. The Hippocratic Oath, that doctors swear by, states: “avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.” Do no harm!
Finally I am reminded of a ‘profound’ poem:
A doctor fell into a well,
and broke his collar bone.
A doctor should attend the sick,
and leave the well alone.