When large volumes of ice cream are considered healthy
Every once in a while you find a book you can’t put down. Even though your eyes itch and you’re dog tired, you stay up another hour just to read a few more chapters.
I found such a book. “Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody” by Charles Panati is not new ̶ it was published 30 years. It’s filled with “facts and anecdotes about the demise of (practically) everything and everybody under the sun.” (I know, my nerdiness is showing.)
The most interesting part of the book for me was the section dealing with medical practices of the past. Bloodletting, for instance. I had read about the practice, particularly in our nation’s colonial days but I didn’t realize how bloodletting became a medical treatment.
Panati wrote that “according to the second-century Roman statesman Pliny the Younger, physicians copied the practice of bloodletting from the instinctive behavior of ailing animals.” The hippopotamus, Pliny noted, when agitated, tore open a vein on a sharp read and quickly calmed down.
The Egyptians also recorded this observation, as well as the fact that a bull with infected testes dragged them across a jagged tree stump, inducing profuse bleeding followed by healing with no sign of infection. Bleeding, the ancients concluded, had beneficial properties.”
Those Egyptians were observant folks, weren’t they? Anyway, it’s easy to understand how our ancestors may have been led to believe that spilling blood would make you better.
One thing led to another, of course, and by the Middle Ages Christian monks saw the procedure of bloodletting not as a curative but as a preventative of sexual arousal. It’s a long story, according to Panati, but these celibate monks believed that a good monthly bleed would help them focus on other things.
The book also addressed the practice of “purging” which persisted in France until the mid-19th century. Proper French people of the time, Panati wrote, subjected themselves to as many as four enemas a day. Known as the “clyster,” the enemas were believed at that time to rid the body of wastes, freshen the complexion and brighten the spirits. It must have been quite a movement.
High society in France hired “limonadiers des posterieurs” (literally “lemonaders of the rear end”) to administer the enemas. They were well trained individuals who approached their job with an artistic flair. Commoners administered their own, Panati wrote. Isn’t that always the case?
The level of popularity of the clyster is compared by the author with today’s physical fitness craze and dieting obsession.
Please accept my apologies if this column has offended your sensitivities. I promise not to dwell on such strange subjects in the future… frequently.
Thinking about the customs and practices of our ancestors, however, causes me to wonder what our descendants will think about how we live today. The very things we do today which seem so proper and intelligent may very well be considered bizarre and primitive 100 years from now.
Will our descendants scratch their heads in wonderment as they try to determine why we subjected ourselves to root canals or hair transplants? Will they fall on the floor laughing when they read about vasectomies? Will they try to keep their children from knowing about 20th century Botox injections.
The bloodletters of the Middle Ages were surely as smug about their practice as we are about health practices we employ today. And, without a doubt, the good French of the early 19th century were confident that their clysters were in the best interest of their health. Yet today both practices seem totally absurd.
We would do well being a little less smug about the things we do and the way we do them. For all we know, in as little as 15 years some of today’s medical practices may be viewed as obsolete.
Shucks, by 2033 they will probably determine that large volumes of ice cream are good for you. Hopefully, I’ll still be around to gum it down.