The Prairie Spy

Alan “Lindy” Linda

Humbug. Charlatan. Quack. Con artist. Trickster. Snake oil salesman. Such are the terms we still use to describe people selling ocean front property in Iowa, and sure fire cancer treatment using weasel nut extract.

Or the cure for Covid being drain cleaner. That’s one that deserves mention in this category.

Actually, the cure that lasted the longest in the history of mankind’s medical malpractice was bloodletting. In ancient Rome and well into medieval Europe, the barber-surgeon became the go-to person for a variety of reasons.

Hair cutting was the least of them. Amputations, leeching, boil draining, smallpox, epilepsy, plague–come on it, folks, we’re a one-stop solution to all your health issues.

You know that red and white striped pole outside barber shops?? (Which has become an antique now almost everywhere.) They were placed outside the barbershops where bloodletting was performed. The pole actually symbolized the stick that a patient would squeeze to facilitate the bleeding process, and some say that the white twirled around the red represented the tourniquet used to hopefully stop the letting. If there was blue on the pole, that represented the veins. And the red, well.

In 1623 a gentleman named Jacques Ferrand wrote an entire book on bloodletting to cure a broken heart, “particularly if the the sufferer was plump and well fed.” Incessant laughing? Bleed’em. Melancholy? To the pole. Hemorrhoids? Whooo! .

Especially insanity. Due no doubt to humoral imbalances in the blood. A place in London in the seventeen-hundreds was nicknamed “Bedlam” for the behaviors incarcerated there, which were treated with a good vomiting and bleeding.

One practitioner wrote: “Twenty to forty ounces of blood (two and a half pints) may be taken and work wonders in calming people.” Yeah. You’d be pretty calm after nearly half your blood was gone. And relatively happy now that they’ve quit draining you.

Famous people over the years owe their demise to bloodletting. Marie Antoinette. Charles the Second. Lord Byron. And George Washington, who came down with a fever after riding in snowy weather. He was having trouble breathing, so his physicians aggressively bled him, fed him vinegar and butter, used laxatives and emetics, and then bled him some more for good measure. It is estimated that they bled five to nine pints of blood from him, after which he died. Likely, he had a cold.

One of the other more famous medical treatments to cure a variety of illnesses was lobotomy. Lobotomy involved somehow drilling a hole in the skull and removing stuff. One of the more lasting sayings to come out of all this drilling holes in peoples’ head was: “I need that like I need a hole in my head!”

Skulls from as far back as 10,00 BCE show absolute signs of creating a hole in a person’s head to cure a wide range of illnesses; Melancholy, madness, idiocy, and dementia. Removing part of the brain was thought to prevent whatever it was you had from contaminating the rest of the brain.

When it comes to curing mental illnesses, my cousin, who was a medic working in a psychiatric military hospital just after the Korean War, said that the acceptable method of treating someone with what we now know is PTSD by wrapping them up in a cold, wet bed sheet and injecting them with overdoses of insulin, which drove them into an epileptic-like seizure. 

That wasn’t all that long ago, really.

Doctors still call it “practicing” medicine.