Honey, Mud, Maggots
and Other Medical Marvels
Robert and Michèle Root-Bernstein
(Houghton Mifflin)
Maggots? Laudable pus? Bleeding the patient? Drinking your own urine (in the morning, before coffee)? What kind of medicine is this, anyway?

Actually, it is very traditional medicine. For instance, if you are a fan of 17th and 18th Century European literature, the doctors are forever and a day "bleeding" their patients --- slicing into their arms and letting the blood flow into a bowl (they called it "breathing a vein.") Into the 19th Century, one doctor reported that venesection was "not only the most powerful and important, but the most generally used, of all our remedies."

To us in the 20th century, with what we know about the function of the blood, we would think that it would be outright destructive to bleed a patient, right? Wrong. According to the authors of Honey, Mud, Maggots et al, if folk medicine used a cure like bleeding for over 2500 years, it must have helped somehow, no matter how wrong-headed it appears to us now.

It does. Help, in certain cases, that is. There are doctors that recommend it for intractable agina pectoris that will not react to the drugs that increase the blood flow to the heart. Furthermore, one Norman Kasting, a physiologist of Canada, found that the hormone vasopressin, which naturally lowers fever, is released in the body when there is dehydration and hemorrhage. In his survey of medical literature from the early Greeks to the 19th Century, he found that physicians drew blood specifically to reduce fever. He suggested that the loss of blood induced vasopressin, and also lowers the level of iron in the body (iron feeds the many harmful bacteria that reproduce in the body) --- and as well, it stimulated the release of curative hormones by the pituitary gland.

Honey etc., is subtitled The Science Behind Folk Remedies and Old Wives' Tales. The style of writing, considering this is scientific writing, is exemplary. The main thesis is that with its stunning discoveries, 20th century medicine drove out medical techniques which had proven themselves successful for centuries. Infections which could not be controlled a hundred years ago now fall easily to antiobiotics and the sulfur drugs. However, modern medicine, to coin a phrase used by the noted geneticist J. Gallant, "threw out the baby with the bathtub."

The authors are suggesting that we might rediscover the past. For example, we could look to the positive aspects of bloodletting, we could let sugar and honey cure pressure sores, we could use maggots cleanse intractable wounds, and let "Laudable Pus" (pardon the expression) take care of grave injuries. Then there's urotherapy, whereby you drink down a glassful of urine each morning (your own, not your neighbor's) as a general tonic pick-me-up, which apparently adds natural antibiotics to the body's immune system. Indeed, some AIDS patients paractice urotherapy religiously. As does the Prime Minister of India, and many Hindus.

And then there are, ugh, leeches, for venous congestion, which can destroy transplants.

    The surgeons called on Hirudo medicinalis, a little guy flown in from New York just for this case...Hirudo didn't look like a hero. He looked, well, like a worm. The nurse opened a jar and, brandishing a pair of tweezers, picked out a slippery, brownish-green leech about two inches long with a sucker at each end of its body...With a y-shaped jaw and hundreds of teeth, the leech bit painlessly through the patient's skin and promptly began to suck...For the next eight days new leeches were applied until finally capillary circulation reëstablished itself throughout the wound. The scalp was saved...


There's an interesting dividend of Honey, Mud, Maggots for some of us. Although the authors are very specific about the need for careful supervision with, say, sticking leeches in your scalp, or maggots in your wounds, I found myself wondering if that particular unsightly swelling in my ankle (called, I found out here, dropsy) might be helped by what they call "head-out immersion" in warm water. Seems that for centuries hot baths were used for gout, to induce urination, as a pallative for liver diseases such as ascitis, and for dropsy.

Well, I'm doing it. I'm not cured (my liver will never go away), but I sure as hell find myself feeling a helluva lot better after an hour or so soaking up to my neck in the hot-tub every evening. And you thought it was just some West Coast fad for taking off your clothes and getting cosy with your sweetie.

--- Ralph R. Doister

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