Monday, February 21, 2011

Hair of the Dog

Having a morning drink after a night of too much drinking is one cure for a hangover. Although it's unlikely that "hair of the dog" works, the idea of treating yourself with what caused the problem in the first place is a homeopathic idea.

One of the primary tenets of homeopathy is that like cures like. The right treatment for an illness is the treatment that produces the same symptoms in a healthy person. So if you have a headache, whatever herb or drug causes a similar headache in a normal person is the right treatment. This idea forms the foundation of homeopathy.

Homeopathy was an extremely popular medical movement in the 19th century, rivaling orthodox medicine for supremacy. A big part of its appeal was its simplicity--you could buy a homeopathy kit that would help you match symptoms to treatment--and the minimal pain inflicted by its therapies.

At the time, many doctors and patients believed that a drug needed to cause a lot of pain to be effective. How else were you to know that it was working if you weren't bleeding or passing out? Homeopathists proposed an alternative: that drugs don't have to hurt to work. Homeopathists treated patients with very small doses of medicine diluted at least 30 (and often many more) times. While many critics derided the use of small doses, claiming that they could never treat anyone, homeopathists at least knew that they were causing no more harm. The same could certainly not be said of regular doctors and their regimen of bleeding, puking, blistering, and sweating.

Homeopathy also claimed some successes in treating people during cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1849, leading many regular doctors to defect to homeopathy. Cholera sufferers got small doses of camphor and were urged to seek out clean air and water. While homeopathy may have done little to cure these people, they also didn't cause more pain to people already suffering as bleeding, blistering, and sweating likely did.

Homeopathy fell out of mainstream favor in the 20th century, but some of its ideas live on in things like "hair of the dog." Homeopathists didn't invent or even endorse the idea of treating a hangover with alcohol, but the idea of like curing like is imbedded in that urban myth. Homeopathy also changed our view of what medicine is supposed to feel like. Today, we look for drugs with few side effects, not the painful, visible signs of treatment from the past.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wisconsin's Hardy Early Settlers

I just recorded an audio piece for WPR's Wisconsin Life series on the state's settlers and why they stayed in such a cold place. Take a listen.

That's some deep snow. Hurley, Wisconsin, 1899.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Get your head examined

Today, when you tell someone to "get his or her head examined," you are usually implying that they are crazy. But the phrase had real currency in the 19th century. People really did get their heads examined--but not to find out they were crazy.

The phrase actually comes from the antebellum phrenology fad when people--all kinds of people, from president James Garfield to Walt Whitman--got their heads "read."Phrenologists could read your character, including what you are good at and what weren't, by looking at the bumps on your head. Supposedly, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, and Ulysses S. Grant even picked their careers based on a head reading. Forget What Color is Your Parachute? In the 19th century, it was What Bumps are on My Brain?

Phrenology offered physical "proof" of your internal self. That was part of its appeal in an age when everyone was driven to "know thyself."Your whole self could be understood by the landscape of your scalp, a powerful idea with incredible potential for making the world work better.

Not everyone thought phrenology was a great idea, though. Lots of people thought it was a crazy idea, which is likely where the phrase "getting your head examined" got it's uncomplimentary overtones.