Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Here is my contribution to Illustration Friday’s theme: Caution. This is a page from my next book, I Feel Better with Mustard on my Head, (due out in 2010) which will illustrate history’s wackiest medical cures. I promise to wait for the book’s release before maggots, mud and mummy powder dominate this blog, but I did want to share with readers one of my favorite medical tools of the trade –Uroscopy (the study or urine).
The first pregnancy tests
Gardening meets science
Egyptians used urine to diagnose pregnancy by having the female pee on barley and wheat seeds. If the seeds grew then the patient could expect a little sprout of their own. Supposedly, barley seeds indicated a boy and wheat indicated a girl. Scientists today know that the estrogen in a pregnant woman’s urine would make the seeds sprout faster.
In the yellow
By the 10th century, physicians had become experts on predicting pregnancy by studying urine’s color, smell, cloudiness and taste to predict pregnancy. What color is a pregnant woman’s urine? A “clear pale lemon color leaning toward off-white” was a sure a sign that baby was on its way. (1) Some medieval doctors mixed wine with urine to see how it would react. Although lemon color urine is not a good indicator of pregnancy, they were on to something with their wine and pee cocktail because alcohol reacts with certain proteins in urine. Stories also indicate that medieval doctors were not as wacky as we might think. In one example, the Duke of Bavaria got a little sick of his doctor sniffing his bodily excretions so he decided to put him to a test: he swapped his urine with a pregnant woman. The physician soon proclaimed that a miracle was eminent—the duke was to give birth.
The Honey Urine Test
Physicians throughout the middle ages and into the 16th century accurately diagnosed diabetes by tasting the sweetness of urine. It was usually the job of an apprentice to do the swilling, but sometimes (presumably when they weren’t in the mood to taste urine), they would pour it in the sand and see if ants were drawn to it. (Ants love sugar.) As discussed in a previous post, I highly doubt Henry VIII suffered from diabetes when his doctors were so well-versed on detecting it in his urine. Today, we know that one of the symptoms of diabetes is sweet urine.
Your future is clear
Some medieval doctors took the pee gazing one step further and even claimed they could predict a patient’s future by their pee. These fortune-telling pee experts were often given the derogatory label of - “piss prophets". Piss prophets even claimed that they could tell whether a girl was still a virgin. Supposedly, A virgin had clear urine and a non-virgin's urine was cloudy. The piss prophets were attacked as charlatans in Elizabeth I’s reign and soon fell out of favor by the seventeenth century. Still, we should give these strange pee experts some credit. Today, we know that cloudiness in urine is a sign of an infection and is one of the many symptoms of gonorrhea. Unfortunately, you can also get cloudiness if you eat a big meal or drink milk which is high in phosphates. Imagine getting accused of being loose just because you drank a glass of milk before your medieval virginity test?
Quiz time: that’s not apple juice:
In the 1600s, a physician named Christian Franz Paullini stated boldly that “ with the aid of feces and urine, it is possible to cure, from head to foot internally and externally, all disease, no matter how severe of poisonous is may seem to be.” (2)Throughout history, urine has been used as a cure-all for everything from stomach aches, rheumatism, gout, ear aches, wounds and even madness.
See if you can guess which of the following urine cures actually worked:
A. Drinking urine to cure madness
B. Peeing on wounds to sterilize them
C. Drinking urine for an upset stomach
D. Curing athletes foot by peeing on yourself
Now scroll down for the answers....
Keep scrolling you fool.
If you are ever caught out in the wilderness with a gaping wound you may need to know this…
A: Mad as a pregnant donkey: Maybe
In ancient Greece, physicians treated madness by making their patients drink donkey pee. If the donkey happened to be pregnant, they were actually giving them the same medicinal benefits as our modern birth control. Many modern birth control pills contain estrogen that is derived from….yes horse and donkey pee. Although, you could argue that estrogen might just make a mad person weepy instead of violent?
B: Nature’s antiseptic: Yes
After battles, surgeons would pee on a soldier’s wound before attempting to sew it back up. This may have been somewhat beneficial because urine is completely sterile when it first leaves the body. It would certainly beat cleaning a wound with dirty water.
C: Bottoms up! No
If you were a doctor in medieval times, you wouldn’t be caught dead without your handy physician’s guide, Rosa Anglica. Along with ridiculous cures such as surrounding small pox patients with the color red, the Rosa Anglica also advised drinking fresh mourning urine to treat dropsy and stomach aches. There is currently a whole new-age movement that swears by drinking urine to restore the natural flora in your stomach. But until they package this cure in a bottle with a pretty label, I am going to stick to my Tums.
D: The pioneer pedicure: No
Our grandparents from the turn of the century had an ingenious way of curing athlete’s foot. They simply soaked their tootsies in a pail of fresh urine. Today, some bright people still pee on themselves in the shower to stop the itch. (Just think what is going on in your gym). Urine does contain urea which kills germs but the amount of urea in your body won’t make a difference nor does urea kill the fungus that causes Athlete’s foot.
So how did you do?
Physician examining urine flask from the Wellcome Library
(1) p. 610, Enger
(2) p.18, Janos
Sources and Further Reading:
Magner, Louis. A History of Medicine. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis, 2005.
Janos, Elisabeth. Country Folk Medicine, Tales of Skunk Oil, Sassafras Tea, and Other Old-Time Remedies. Gilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 1990.
Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History, New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2007.
Eldon, Enger, Et Al Concepts in Biology' 2007 Ed.2007.