Medicine Through the Ages

Ruby McCumber

Looking Six Months Back

This article is part of a series of articles that were written last school year but were never published due to the pandemic. The Norse Code has decided to publish these articles to give insight into how people were feeling at that time.

As of right now, COVID-19 has spread around the globe and has caused the world to go into quarantine. Doctors are working day and night to try to find a cure for this epidemic. In the past, there have been other severe illnesses and they were all treated very differently, especially compared to modern-day.

 First, off we have the Plague of Athens that occurred in 430 B.C., not long after the war between Athens and Sparta began. This illness killed about 100,000 people and attacked healthy people with redness to their eyes and a sore throat. 

There weren’t many people who were willing to care for the sick, and those who were willing to help were usually the most vulnerable to it. Once they died, the bodies were either put into mass graves or burned. On occasion, if someone who was taking bodies to a mass grave came across another person burning them they would add their bodies to their fire. 

A few hundred years later The Byzantine Empire was ravaged by the plague of Justinian, which occurred between A.D 541-542. The plague occurred periodically after the first wave, and it was suggested up to 10% of the world’s population died according to the ancient history encyclopedia. 

The people of the Byzantine Empire had two options, either a trained physician or home remedies. Many of the trained physicians engaged in a  four-year course of study taught by trained practitioners at Alexandria, then the premier center for medical training.

If the people could not access a physician they could turn to home remedies. They tried various treatments including cold-water baths, powders “blessed” by saints, magic amulets & rings, and various drugs, especially alkaloids which are a type of plant. And if they still couldn’t do any of these home remedies they went to the hospital or self quarantined. 

Traveling over to Eurasia and North Africa, the Black Death resulted in the deaths of up to 75-200 million people. It was commonly spread through rats and fleas. It caused fever and chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting, and bleeding from the mouth, nose or rectum, or under the skin.

Some ways they tried to cure it were to rub chopped up onions, herbs, or a chopped up snake if available on the boils that formed. And they tried drinking Drinking vinegar, eating crushed minerals, arsenic, or mercury. Doctors soon started popping the boils and often tested the victim’s urine to check their health.

Similar to the black death the great plague of Marseille spread through fleas on rats, even though the ships that originally brought it to Marseille, France were quarantined. It went from 1720 to 1723 and around 100,000 people died, or about 30% of their population.

The city created an organization called the sanitation board, which helped in keeping the city healthy. They created the first public hospital with a full-sized staff of nurses and doctors. There was a lot of misinformation going around at this time, so they provided the citizens with a list of doctors that we’re credible. The sanitation board also checked over all the boats and kept them quarantined for 18 days until they knew that the people on the boat didn’t bring over any diseases. 

Across the Atlantic Ocean, yellow fever was taking over Philadelphia in 1793. The illness was transmitted by mosquitoes, and the population of mosquitos boomed in the hot and humid summer in Philadelphia that year. Mild cases cause fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. 

There were several treatments that the doctors used to try in order to help, and draining the patient’s blood was one of them. Middle school social studies teacher Ellen Vandenberg says, “Much of the treatments were actually not good for the patient.  For example, bloodletting or leeches….the knowledge at the time was that it was bad spirits in the blood that was making people sick, so in their minds, they got the bad blood out”. The doctors thought they were helping the patients when really they were just weakening them. 

Another Pandemic that started in America was the American Polio epidemic that started in 1916 in New York City. it caused the infected to have weakness and trouble breathing. President Roosevelt ended up having polio. 

Kevin Dyke is a social studies teacher at New Berlin West, and his grandfather lived through the pandemic. “Public areas like pools, playgrounds, and movie theaters would be closed. Birthday parties and playdates for children were also discouraged for the fear that kids would catch polio. It sounds eerily similar to the social distancing and stays at home orders that we have today,” says Dyke. 

Lots of public places were shut down in fear of this illness. There were many misconceptions on what caused it. Some people even thought ice cream causes polio because both ice cream sales and polio went up in the summer, even though it was just a coincidence. 

“One of the more interesting treatments for polio is the iron lung. It is a crazy looking metal box where only the patient’s head stuck out. Polio weakens muscles so the iron lung would assist patients breathing when their muscles were too weak to breathe normally on their own” explains Dyke.  

“Other people believed that natural mineral water (found in areas like Hot Springs, AR or Warm Springs, GA) might cure polio,”  Dyke says. He goes on to explain that the mineral water doesn’t work, though. But the businesses were happy to encourage these stories.

 Eventually, Jonas Salk created a vaccine that worked after 5-6 years of working on it. Once he was given permission, he tested his vaccine on his children and eventually went on to other healthy children. He eventually got lots of money off of his vaccine because he put a patent on it, meaning that anyone who wants to use the owner’s works has to pay him. 

 Many people compare Covid-19 to the 1918 Spanish flu, witch Lasted almost 36 months from January 1918 to December 1920.  There were 500 million confirmed cases and killed around 50 million of those cases. 

On occasion, the patient was given Aspirin or acetylsalicylic acid and doses of epinephrine. To combat the cyanosis physicians used a mask to give them more oxygen or sometimes injected it under the patient’s skin. Others used salicin which reduced pain, discomfort, and fever. It was claimed to reduce the infectivity of the patient. Another popular remedy was cinnamon in powder or oil form with milk to reduce the temperature.

It may not be all of them, but that is what medicine and treatments look like throughout history. They have changed a lot compared to today, but there are also a few similarities thrown into the mix.