While we gripe about a visit to the doctor or dentist, let’s take a minute to contemplate just how far we’ve come. Not so long ago, medicine was crude, bordering on barbaric.
A 1761 medical manual advised reviving a drowned person with a tobacco-smoke enema, for example, while a German doctor in 1792 was convinced that putting hats on children would render them “simple and stupid.”
A particularly fascinating reminder of medical advancement comes in “The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine” (Dutton), out now, by Thomas Morris, a London-based medical historian.
Morris has combed through old medical journals and compiled a trove of the most bizarre, disgusting — and compelling — cases from the early 17th to the turn of the 20th century.
It’s like medical rubbernecking.
Try and turn away as you read about a 19th-century laborer who had his intestines forced into his scrotum after being run over by a brick cart (better him than you, and yes, he recovered) or the sailor who drunkenly swallowed 35 knives (he didn’t).
It’s the less straightforward cases, however, that may arouse the most sympathy for your forebears centuries ago.
Take Elizabeth Orvin, an “extraordinary sleepy woman,” as the journal describes her.
In 1738, she suddenly fell into a deep slumber that lasted four days during which it was not “possible to rouse her.”
For the next 10 years, she slept some 17 hours a day, from 3 a.m. until 8 p.m. Concerned doctors tried some, er, novel methods to wake her, including jamming needles under her fingernails and slathering her with honey and letting bees sting her, but she zzzz’d on.
This was “a case for Gregory House, MD, because there is no obvious diagnosis,” Morris tells The Post.
Doctors back then were definitely stumped, but as Morris notes, we now know the woman’s symptoms are similar to those of encephalitis lethargica, a mysterious illness often associated with influenza.
An equally disturbing case involves a man named John Pennant from 1637. Pennant had died after a long illness, and his family ordered an autopsy.
When the doctor examined his heart, he found inside a long, thin creature that looked like a “serpent.”
“The Lady Herris then shivered to see it, and since hath often spoken it, that she was inwardly troubled at it because the head of it was truly like the head of a snake,” the contemporary account reads.
A surgeon and bystanders examined the strange creature, determined it had identifiable anatomical features, and it sure seemed to be an animal.
“In 1637, the doctors had no idea of what they were looking at or what had caused it,” Morris says. “But it’s interesting that their description of the autopsy is so clear and detailed that a modern doctor can make an informed guess at a possible diagnosis.”
That diagnosis: Pennant most likely suffered from a rare blood disorder and that the “serpent” was actually a monster clot.
And then there’s Rachel Hertz, a young Danish woman who sounds like she belonged in a Coney Island sideshow.
She began to suffer in 1819 from tumors. When a doctor pierced one of the lumps, “to his great astonishment,” a needle was found inside.
Over the next few years, some 400 needles would push their way out of Hertz’s body from all over — breasts, shoulders, thighs and abdomen.
This is less a case of an early Sex Pistols fan and more likely an undiagnosed eating disorder.
Hertz probably had pica, in which people swallow non-food items. After she ate the needles, they likely pierced the walls of her digestive tract and, weirdly, ended up migrating to different parts of her body.
Despite her terrible diet, Hertz apparently survived. The 1825 account notes that she was living at a Copenhagen hospital and enjoying “good health.”
That’s more than can be said of some other unfortunates described in “Exploding Teeth,” born too soon for medicine to offer much help.
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