The lessons of the past (Day -280)

The Knick Medical History

I’ve started to learn more about the history of surgery, and how the techniques used today developed. This is absolutely fascinating for me as I believe that we should avoid repeating mistakes that have already been made in the past. In fact I believe it is essential – and this will probably keep cropping up in my posts from here forth.

For me this started rather randomly with a TV show – The Knick which is based in the early 1900’s and is based on medical history which got me wondering what else used to be. This was just after the invention of anaesthesia and the main character is styled around the famous Dr Halsted. This show made me scared both at how patients died from common diseases which are now easily treated with antibiotics to how racism was so common even among such highly educated men.

Something that I found surprising was that in the 1800’s the official language of medicine was German. There are an original set of books from 1881 by Dr Billroth who is considered the father of abdominal surgery – and in fact some of the operations he developed are still commonly used today.

However what has also come up is how the techniques were developed often using animals in the past. For example at the start of the 1900’s Dr Harvey Cushing decided to teach a human surgery course on live dogs as the ability to learn on cadavers was not suitable. Actually a lot of the techniques for brain surgery were developed on dogs, not just by Dr Cushing but also by his colleagues. At one point Dr Cushing actually made a glass window in a dog’s skull so he could observe the blood vessels in the brain whilst he was observing the differences in intracranial pressure (the development of the Cushing reflex).

Something really important though is that through this learning by human surgeons a vast amount of knowledge was collected about animals. This knowledge needs to be accessible and used. Still today many medicines and medical procedures are developed on animals. Yet there is still a divide between animals being used for development of these procedures and them being available after development for use in animals. This is why I believe One Medicine is so important and I do fully support The Humanimal Trust in making this happen.

I’ve still a few chapters left to read in Harvey Cushing: A life in surgery however already it has been an amazing story – and extremely inspiring.

Where does that “old” saying come from?


They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & Sold to the tannery…….if you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor”
But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot……they “didn’t have a pot to piss in” & were the lowest of the low
The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be.

Here are some facts about the 1500s:
Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June.. However, since they were starting to smell . …… . Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting Married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the Bath water!”

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof… Hence the saying “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old. Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would Sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive… So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.

Randomly found and shared for entertainment…