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The Weird and Wonderful History of Medicine - A Masterclass Guide with Author Briony Hudson

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

Briony Hudson with her super book, Medicine.

The history of medicine is a weird, wonderful, gross, yucky, kind of thing. It is also a topic we haven't explored very much on the Imagining History Blog and we wanted to change that. So, we decided to phone a friend, or to be more precise, email an expert.

That expert was none other Briony Hudson. Briony is a Pharmacy Historian and Lecturer, Director of Amersham Museum, and author of the fantastic new history book for children (and adults!), 'Medicine: A Magnificently Illustrated History'. Briony was the ideal candidate for learning all about the history of medicine.

We asked some tricksy questions that we demanded answers for and Briony answered them all with aplomb and barely broke a sweat.

Want to know about the healing properties of honey, drilling skulls, and Viking poo? Then you've come to the right interview!

Imagining History - Could you tell us a little about your book ‘Medicine: A Magnificently Illustrated History’?

Briony Hudson - ‘Medicine’ is a book that introduces readers to the long, global, weird, and wonderful history of health and wellbeing by exploring a wide range of themes, practitioners, and patients. It’s brilliantly illustrated by Nick Taylor. As the author, my aim was to explain key moments in medical history, but also some of the quirkier (and gross!) stories – and definitely to remind readers that our understanding of history is ever-changing and often complicated.

What was your inspiration behind writing ‘Medicine’?

My main aim was to make it fun and thought-provoking! I’m a museum curator by training, and so I was also really keen that we kept an eye on the sources that medical historians use throughout the book. Alongside that central thread, I also wanted to make sure that the book included the usual suspects – Alexander Fleming, Hippocrates, Crick and Watson – but also some of the lesser-known stories and people who have also had an impact on the development of medicine across the world. The typical history of medicine mainly focuses on European white men, and I wanted to move away from that. And personally, one of the really big attractions of the project was working with Nick, as I’d never worked with an illustrator before. It was really exciting to see how he took my words as inspiration for amazing images, and I’m delighted with the end result.

How do we know about the illnesses that people suffered from in the past? Are there written sources or do we rely on archaeological data?

It depends! Medical historians draw on a massive range of different sources, but that will differ depending on which part of the world, which historical period, and which topic they are investigating. As a curator, I love using objects. For example, one of my specialist areas is looking at the medical ingredients and remedies that people used in the 1600s in England, combining information in books, recipes, and on ceramic jars that apothecaries stored these medicines in. And often the most exciting research comes about when a whole range of sources come together. For example, work on the Black Death combines written accounts, artworks, and published books, with analysis of DNA in skeletons to look for fragments of the Yersinia pestis bacterium that caused the disease.

What do we know about medical treatments from the Stone Age?

Without written evidence, historians mainly use evidence from skeletons to investigate how people in the Stone Age might have treated wounds. Specialist archaeologists can look at healed injuries and deduce whether people survived after a broken bone, for example. There are skulls from this period that have been tranpanned, where someone has purposefully made a hole in the skull perhaps because they believed it would let out evil spirits, but I think more likely in an emergency to treat a head wound. There is definite evidence that some people survived after this extreme treatment.

Does learning about those illnesses from the past influence the treatments of today?

Yes, definitely. Across history, surgeons, for example, have looked at previous procedures and used them as the basis for their own work. One area is surgery to repair people’s faces after battles and war. Techniques used in 6th century BCE India were influential for Italian surgeons in the 1500s, who in turn inspired pioneers trying to reconstruct soldiers’ faces after horrendous wounds in the First and Second World Wars. An example from today is that researchers are working to re-investigate historical recipes to inspire new medicines to treat hospital superbugs. An international research team had an exciting success when they recreated a 10th century Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections and found that it killed a range of nasty microbes responsible for infections such as MRSA. Other scientists are investigating the healing properties of honey, which has been used as a medical treatment for centuries, and other researchers are looking into medicinal plants to find new treatments for cancer.

What did medicine look like in Ancient Greece and Rome?

That’s a big question! There are all sorts of surviving evidence from surgical instruments that look surprisingly similar in many ways to those used today, to written guidebooks for doctors and surgeons that have been handed down the centuries, to information from gravestones and artworks, and archaeological evidence including whole healing temple complexes and military hospitals. I think one of the main messages is that, just like today, medical treatments depended very much on where you lived (the Roman empire was enormous!), when you lived, and how rich or poor you were.

Where were the first hospitals? Are there any similarities with hospitals and/or procedures of today?

If we think of a hospital as a special centre where experts in medical care are based and people can come to be treated for a range of illnesses, we can look back to ancient civilisations including Greece and Rome. Ancient Greece had special healing temples where people would ask for help from the gods and seek spiritual as well as physical treatments. The earliest hospitals in the Islamic world were founded in Baghdad, Iraq in 905CE and Cairo, Egypt in 872CE. There are certainly similarities with wards for different illnesses, care for emergencies, and expert staff. Islamic hospitals also sometimes looked after elderly people, rather like a retirement home.

Did ancient medicine actually work?

Good question, and it partly depends on what we mean by work! We know that people survived after taking ancient remedies or undergoing ancient surgical procedures, so that’s one definition of success. Many plant-based remedies known in the ancient world have continued to be used until today, whether in their original form as you might find in Traditional Chinese Medicine or traditional rongoa Maori medicine in New Zealand, or as the inspiration for developing modern medicine in laboratories. For example, Chinese researcher Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015 for her discovery of a medicine to treat malaria. Her inspiration was an ancient fever remedy based on the Chinese wormwood plant, that she and her team faithfully recreated and then extracted a natural chemical – artemisinin - from which they could develop this ground-breaking treatment.

What was the weirdest type of medical treatment you uncovered during your research?

As I’ve been researching weird and wonderful cures for about 20 years, I was used to finding out about oil of earthworms or ointments made from fox lungs! So, my favourite new theme to research, and probably the most squeamish, was looking into doctors who experimented on themselves to develop new treatments. This included one doctor who drank fresh vomit from a patient with yellow fever to prove that he wouldn’t catch it, and another who got his colleagues to paralyse him with a South American plant poison, and then prick him with pins to show that he could still feel pain.

How did ancient pandemics, such as the Antonine Plague, spread and how were they dealt with? Were their approaches to dealing with plague different from our modern response?

This is something that I was keen to find out about, especially in contrast to our recent experiences with Covid, particularly because I’m not usually a historian of the ancient world. It seems that historians aren’t sure whether the Antonine Plague was smallpox or measles, or perhaps something else. It spread through the Roman Empire easily because of all of the trade routes, and perhaps killed up to 25 million people. Our ideas of staying away from infected people, fresh air, cleaning rooms – and quarantine (from the Italian word for the number 40, indicating the number of days to stay isolated) – all really date from later plagues, particularly the Black Death in the 14th century.

Tell us about Viking poo, please!

I visited Jorvik, the amazing Viking history centre in York, with my family as the pandemic restrictions in the summer of 2020 were lifted and loved it as much as I did when I visited as a child. One of its most popular exhibits is a fossilised Viking coprolite – or human poo! I was determined to feature it in the book, as I think it’s a great example of the unexpected evidence that can be used in medical history. The Jorvik coprolite was found by archaeologists in 1972 when they were excavating the Viking remains in York. When they examined it under a microscope, they found that it contained pollen grains and bran, but also hundreds of parasite eggs that suggest that the person’s stomach was full of worms – eeugh!

A massive palm-achingly forceful high five to Briony for answering our questions!

You can buy Medicine: A Magnificently Illustrated History from Big Picture Press by clicking here.


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