Fun Facts from the History of Preventive Medicine



Back in the old days, people thought that illness was the result of imbalances of the four “humours” within the body. “Bleeding” to correct those imbalances was standard treatment. Paracelsus (1493-1541) first challenged this view by stating that poisons from outside the body made people sick. Introducing other “poisons,” albeit in smaller doses, could correct things.

Fast forward two centuries to the early 1700s, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu of London followed the basic ideas of Paracelsus in her personal crusade to make English people healthier. Smallpox was rampant in those days, and Lady Montagu promoted the radical idea of inserting a small bit of matter from a smallpox patient into the body of a healthy person to ward off the disease. A few people took her up on the offer and proved her right; King George I had his grandchildren “inoculated.”

Lady Montagu

Lady Montagu

In America, the preacher Cotton Mather was a big supporter of the practice, but the only physician to adopt it was Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (1676-1766) of Brookline, Massachusetts. Boylston performed America’s first successful operation for the removal of bladder stones in 1710. In 1718, he did the first surgical removal of a breast tumor.

The “big pox,” or syphilis, was all too common as well. Dr. Thomas Dover (1660-1742) thought that mercury was the cure for syphilis. He prescribed mercury for that and for other venereal diseases and became known as “Dr. Quicksilver.” His “Dover’s Powder,” a concoction of ipecac, opium, and potassium sulfate, was used to induce sweating to defeat the advance of a “cold” and at the beginning of an attack of fever. It remained in use up to the 1960s.

Zabdiel Boylston

Zabdiel Boylston

Thomas Dover was an interesting guy. He gave up his medical practice and sought his fortune in privateering, even though he was a landlubber. On a three-year voyage of that legalized piracy he managed to make that fortune and put down a mutiny along the way. He was also the captain who rescued and brought home Alexander Selkirk, who’d been marooned on an island off Chile. Selkirk’s story was retold in fiction by Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe.

Dover, like Lady Montagu, was a disciple of Paracelsus and a believer that diseases originated outside the body. That growing realization led to support for additional preventive medical techniques. Venereal disease was one affliction that simply cried out for methods of prevention, especially in military circles. The troops of the British Royal Guard suffered more deaths from sexually-transmitted diseases than from enemy swords and bullets.

A Colonel Cundom of the Guards came up with the answer. He designed a “bootie” made from dried lamb intestines which could be oiled before use. A number of writers and poets began to praise the new invention. Englishmen began referring to it as a “French letter,” while the French called it an “English cloak.”

The Marquise de Sévigné

The Marquise de Sévigné

The Marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696), a prolific and witty letter-writer, described it thus to her daughter: “ armor against enjoyment and a spider web against danger.”

A small company was founded in 1880 to produce the booties that were named for the intrepid colonel. In 1937, the first latex version of the bootie made its appearance. The company named the new product a “Trojan” in honor of the walls of Troy, which had been so effective on holding the Greeks at bay for ten years. The more formal name of the product is “prophylactic,” derived from the Greek words “pro” (for) and “phylax” (gatekeeper).

And that’s our history lesson for today.

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