Sunday, February 23, 2014

Doctors Are Not Always Right

George Washington died in 1799 at the age of 67. When he fell sick with what sounds like a cold or infection of some sort, he received care from eminent and respectable physicians. Nevertheless, within a few days, he was dead.

His medical treatments ranged from possibly helpful ("a medicinal mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter") to very unhelpful (extensive bloodletting) to toxic (orally administered mercurous chloride, also known as calomel, generally given to patients until they salivated uncontrollably, a symptom of acute mercury poisoning).

We can look back at this story, shaking our heads sadly at the barbarity of the medicine of 1799. While doing this, we may note that mercurous chloride was an ingredient in infant teething powders in Britain until 1954, and shake our heads sadly some more. Or that mercurious chloride was a legal ingredient in skin whitening creams in the US until 1990.


Keep in mind that 1799 was at least a hundred years after the general acceptance of "scientific method", the "rules" by which science operates and new paradigms are incorporated into the canon of mainstream science. Granted since 1799, we have had another two centuries of research, our ability to measure things has improved hugely, and so on, but in some fundamental ways, the game has not changed.

Another story: Half a century later, in 1847, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a physician, demonstrated that hand-washing and general sanitation in hospitals could drastically reduce the spread of a particular type of fever (which we now know was infectious). His results were ignored, and he was ostracized by other doctors, at least partly because his theory did not mesh with the prominent disease theories of the day; eventually he became unstable, was committed to an asylum, and, as fate would have it, died due to an infection.

In the next post in this series, I will share a few more stories, and explore some of the following beliefs:
  1. Medicine as practiced 200 years ago or 150 years ago was a comedy (or tragedy) of errors, but nowadays, it is ruled by science and logic, so it's a whole different ballgame.
  2. Mainstream medicine always has the best solutions to people's health problems.
  3. "Alternative medicine" never has the best solutions to people's health problems.
  4. If something is approved by regulatory agencies and is part of mainstream practice, then it is probably pretty safe, or at least its benefits outweigh its risks.
  5. Cosmetics are certainly regulated by governmental agencies.
  6. Health and medical questions should be answered by experts. Don't question them; or at least not if you lack an appropriate PhD or MD, or at the very least are willing to read primary research and perhaps replicate relevant experiments.
Previous posts in this series:

2 comments:

Farmer Liz said...

Interesting! Looking forward to part 2 !

Alex Lewin said...

Farmer Liz! Check these links for more!

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Would love to get more feedback!