The Overheard Musings of a Milkmaid

It was in the middle of the 18th century when, as a boy, English physician Edward Jenner overheard a conversation that would one day save countless lives. What he overheard was a milkmaid explaining to someone that she would never have to worry about the disfigurement of the dreaded smallpox because she’d had a case of the much milder disease cowpox.

Surely it struck the young man as strange that this probably fairly uneducated woman believed her life, and her beauty, may have been saved by a cow, but the notion stuck with him as he grew. On May 14, 1796, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old with cowpox laced pus. The boy ended up with a short-lived mild fever and some temporary general malaise, but was otherwise fine. Then two months later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox, and he developed no symptoms at all.

This woman will not be getting smallpox. Paulus Potter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Jenner called his discovery “vaccinia,” derived from the Latin word for cow. He wrote up his findings, published them as An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, presented them to the Royal Society, and faced ridicule from renowned naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and other very important men.

But some listened and experimented and discovered the same result. Edward Jenner, on the overheard musings of a milkmaid, had discovered a way to prevent smallpox infection that proved significantly safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself, which was a practice frequently undertaken by those who wanted to reduce their chance of dying from smallpox to one in forty from twelve in forty.

Edward Jenner, no longer a child, and still eavesdropping on milkmaids. John Raphael Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One physician thought the newfangled vaccine promising enough, that he sent Jenner’s work to an American colleague by the name of Benjamin Waterhouse, who served as Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. The American physician was so impressed by the research that on July 8, 1802, he vaccinated both a household servant and Waterhouse’s own five-year-old son, fortunately with great success. He would later go on to vaccinate his entire household and quite a few relatives in order to, according to him, “convince the faithless and silence the mischievous.”

Excited, Waterhouse next set up Board of Health trials in which vaccination by the cowpox-causing virus proved overwhelmingly preventative of smallpox infection. He faced as much resistance and ridicule as Jenner had, but he did have a powerful ally in then president Thomas Jefferson who sent him a fan letter in which he wrote: “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

Benjamin Waterhouse, a man who thankfully wasn’t too concerned about the ethical questions surrounding experimenting on one’s own 5-year-old son. Rembrandt Peale, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson may have been a little bit premature in his statement, but through the continued efforts of Waterhouse and Jenner a skeptical population both in the US and England, and eventually throughout the world, increasingly sought vaccination. Then in 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox officially eradicated.

Gone. A disease that some historians estimate killed as many as two billion people throughout history is gone because of a gossiping milkmaid, an eavesdropping boy, and the influence of a committed community of medical professionals and those who trusted them.

I’m not a vaccine expert, though I’m glad to say I have more education than the average 18th century milkmaid. What I do know is that the more opportunity viruses have to thrive, the more opportunity there is for variations to occur, and the more opportunity there is that one of those variations may not be thwarted by the vaccines we currently have. I also have many medical professionals in my life, all of whom are fans of vaccination in general, and right now, of the Covid-19 vaccines specifically.

United States Census, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wouldn’t pretend that I could dispense medical advice, and I am well aware that every individual has a unique medical history and set of concerns that can produce a whole host of questions I might not even think to ask. And I know there’s a lot of confusing information out there. I also believe that how my fellow Americans want to live their lives is how they should live their lives. I get all of that.

So, I will not dispense advice or debate with you about whether or not you should get vaccinated against Covid-19. I won’t even consider you faithless or try to silence your mischief if you decide not to. All I will say, for whatever it may be worth, is that the members of my household, consisting of me, two teenage sons, and my husband who is a medical professional, have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

I’m grateful we had the opportunity and that we took advantage of it. I’m grateful that most of my extended family are vaccinated as well. I’m grateful for all those around me who have also done so. I’m grateful for cows and milkmaids, for Edward Jenner and Benjamin Waterhouse, and for the medical professionals who have made our most recent miraculous vaccines possible.

And if you have the opportunity to get vaccinated against Covid-19, I am so very grateful for that, too.

Follow the Bigwigs

Between the years of 1673 and 1765, the city of Paris saw more than a 400% increase in its number of wig makers. Largely that is because King Louis XIV, standing in heels at the pinnacle of fashion, had started to go a little bit bald and decided to take a page from his father’s book.

Previously, Louis XIII had dealt with hair problems of his own. Probably suffering from syphilis, which was all the rage in Europe at the time, Louis XIII lost his hair in patches and suffered with sores on his scalp. And so, he donned a wig.

Yes, there were also many prominent Americans who wore wigs, but George Washington was not among them. I cannot tell a lie, these powdered curls are his own luscious locks. Gilbert Stuart, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wearing a wig wasn’t exactly a brand-new fashion trend. Ancient Egyptians had worn them. Later, some powerful Romans, too. And bald Europeans or those unfortunate enough to be cursed with red hair occasionally wore wigs. Of course, when the king decides to do it, people tend to sit up and notice. Also, a lot of them had syphilis, too.

Wearing a wig became a pretty sensible thing to do. It protected your dome from the air while irritating your festering sores, added a couple pounds to your already cumbersome attire, and made your scalp sweat profusely. It also harbored grime and lice and layers and layers of scented powders that made you smell…well…actually that’s it. They just made you smell. I suppose maybe that kept people from wanting to get within six feet of you, and so it may actually have offered pretty effective protection from syphilis.

I mean, there’s wearing a wig. And then there’s this. Philip Dawe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But wigs really took off in France, and soon all across Europe, when the next generation of French royalty started to wear them. Louis XIV allegedly owned a thousand wigs that he could coordinate with each of his outfits for any occasion, whether an intimate family dinner at home, a sparsely attended press conference, a private walk alone in his gardens, or a jolly Zoom call with foreign dignitaries.

No one would have ever questioned the king’s dedication to wearing wigs, and by his example, probably preventing the spread of syphilis. In fact, because of such noble dedication to looking ridiculous, a hundred years after the end of the reign of Louis XIV, there were still incredibly health-conscious people dedicated to wearing wigs, some of them so elaborate and so big they could have been layers of two or even three wigs stacked on top of one another.  

Of course, in late 18th century France, it became somewhat less healthful to associate oneself with the aristocracy, and wig-wearing finally fell out of fashion there. This development was followed closely by a fairly hefty English tax on wig powder, which convinced the British population that it, too, didn’t care that much for wigs.

I guess maybe there’s an alarming rate of syphilis among English barristers? Someone ought to look into that. Sounds like a public health crisis. Image by Michael Dodd from Pixabay

Today we know a lot more about syphilis, both how it can be avoided and how it can be treated. It’s still a dangerous disease that needs to be taken seriously, and cases have actually been on the rise in recent years, particularly in Europe. It’s also true that wig-makers have gotten better at making natural-looking, more hygienic hair-pieces for those who need them because they have red hair or something.

But I think today everyone, with the exception of English barristers, has come to accept that wearing a poofy wig isn’t often really all that necessary. Still, it sure is funny to look back at the fashion trends of the past and the lengths people would go to imitate and demonstrate support for a particular leader or set of ideas. Thank goodness we know better now.

A Surefire Cure for the Hiccups

This week I received a note of thanks from WordPress. Apparently, I have been blogging along in this little space for nine years. In that time, I have averaged around forty-seven posts per year, once a week, except for the weeks I miss. It’s been a little higher in recent years because as my children have gotten older, they’ve become easier to ignore.

The internet actually attributes several “successful” hiccup cures to Pliny the Elder, but in my cursory attempt to chase down the references (yes, sometimes I look stuff up), I couldn’t find them. I fear this means that people believe Pliny the Elder is some kind of reliable medical authority. Clearly they have never read his work. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each post averages about eight hundred words or so, in addition to the occasionally ridiculously long picture caption. I figure I have vomited approximately 350,000 words onto this blog over the last nine years. I’m grateful to WordPress for the acknowledgement, because that seems worth acknowledging, and I am especially grateful for the accompanying encouragement to: “Keep up the good blogging.”

Or at least I am thankful for the presumption that what I have been doing for the last nine years has been good blogging worth keeping up. But if I think about it, it’s also a lot of pressure to put on a person. Because blogging regularly can occasionally be a difficult thing to do. It requires coming up with ideas again and again that readers might actually want to read about.

I’ve been pretty lucky with topics these past nine years. History is the gift that keeps on giving. Stories of individuals in history doing smart or interesting or silly or stupid things are abundant. Still, some weeks, I sit down to do some good blogging and I’ve got nothing. I encounter a hiccup.

This week has been one of those. After 350, 000 words, I have developed a case of the hiccups. I blame WordPress.

Fortunately, there are lot of cures for hiccups. I could hold my breath or suck on a lemon, or gulp water, or stand on my head. Actually, I probably couldn’t do that last one. But I might use an Ancient Chinese cure by chewing slowly on ginger and swallowing the juice, or try the old Viking remedy of grasping my tongue with a handkerchief and tugging on it while I count to 100. I could give the advice of Pliny the Elder a chance by drinking small amounts of raw cabbage mixed into vinegar with a hint of dill or chervil.

D–n this hiccup, by Henry Alken, 1837. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Or maybe I should take a page out of John Mytton’s book. Born in 1796, John “Mad Jack” Mytton, wealthy British playboy who definitely earned his nickname, was most known for horseracing, gambling, naked hunting, and intentionally getting into carriage accidents. He also earned a bit of fame by attempting to cure a case of the hiccups by setting himself on fire. This according to an account written by his friend Charles James Apperley (aka Nimrod) who was present at the time.

The cure worked, though I’m not sure it was worth it. Mytton continued on, presumably hiccup-free, for another year or so of fast living before dying of alcohol poisoning in 1834, leaving behind an estranged second wife, four children, an enormous amount of debt, and a surefire hiccup cure.

Hiccups can be awfully frustrating, but they usually go away after a while. I know that after nine years, that still seems to be the case in my little corner of the blogosphere, where history continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, and there are plenty of Mad Jack Myttons out there with stories worth exploring. I don’t know if that really makes for good blogging, but it sure is a lot of fun.

A Brush with Normalcy

This week marks the seventh week straight that the numbers of new Covid cases and Covid-related hospitalizations have been down in my little corner of the world. That’s great news. Vaccines are rolling out, never as quickly as everyone would like, but we’re making progress. And we are beginning to see hints that bits of normalcy are slowly, cautiously returning.

Also this week I went to the dentist for a regular cleaning and checkup, which is pretty normal, but it was especially, wonderfully normal this time, because I got a purple a toothbrush.

I should explain that though I regularly see my dentist every six months, I had been just a few weeks out from an appointment when the pandemic changed everyone’s everything around these parts. My appointment was indefinitely postponed while my dentist office figured out how to keep themselves and their patients safe while also putting their hands inside people’s mouths.

I mean, how exactly does social distancing fit into something like this? photo credit: electricteeth Dental Floss/Flossing via photopin (license)

I didn’t like missing that appointment. I have pretty good teeth and I do my best to take care of my smile, but missing that checkup felt wrong. I imagine it’s a little bit how William Addis felt when he went to jail in 1770 and began to think his oral hygiene routine was insufficient.

Entrepreneur, rag trader, and apparent rabble-rouser William Addis went to prison for inciting a riot in the Spitalfields district of London. It’s not entirely clear what Addis was rioting about. There was a great deal of unrest in the area at the time, primarily among silk weavers who were demanding better pay and generally not getting along very well with one another. A handful of men were hanged for their alleged part in inciting such riots, but Addis, or course, was not among them. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time as so many people are when rioting is involved.

But regardless of why it happened, Addis found himself in prison, contemplating his grimy teeth. As he did so, his attention was caught by a broom being swept across the floor outside his cell and he was struck with sudden inspiration. Instead of wiping his teeth with a cloth and a bit of soot, or crushed shell, or coal dust, or salt, or whatever, he wondered if a mouth-sized broom might be more effective.

The story goes that the next night he set to work drilling small holes into a bone he’d saved from his dinner. Then he obtained a few bits of broom bristle, stuck them in the holes, and secured them to the bone with some kind of wire or glue. And the first tooth brush was born.

Because nothing screams “oral hygiene” quite like a dirty old broom. Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Okay, that’s not exactly true. The first toothbrush, or something like it, was probably invented more than five hundred years earlier in a Chinese prison. Or possibly not in a prison at all. But most likely in China. Addis didn’t even coin the word toothbrush, which first showed up in print in 1690.

Such a clever device hadn’t really caught on in Europe, though. Addis saw an opening in the market and as soon as he’d served his time, he set up his operation becoming the first man to mass-produce tooth brushes, made with bone handles and hair from a boar.

The company he started eventually became Wisdom Toothbrushes, which is still going strong, producing about 70 million toothbrushes per year. They did trade in the bone and boar hair design for a synthetic nylon version when that became a better option.

I’m pretty serious about toothbrushes. I dutifully replace mine every few months, and every six months, I bring a new one home from the dentist. It’s not a Wisdom toothbrush, which I understand markets primarily in England. It’s a boring Oral-B, which was invented in the fifties by a periodontist who I don’t believe ever went to prison. But it is always purple.

I might actually be a crazy lady, but this is what normal looks like to me.

The first time, about eight years ago now, I visited my current dental office, the hygienist asked me what color toothbrush I wanted. I’m almost as serious about dental hygienists as I am about toothbrushes, and it meant a lot that in addition to being gentle and fast and really good at not asking direct questions when her hands are actively in my mouth, this one took the time to figure out my toothbrush color preference.

In eight years, she’s never asked again, yet after every visit, there is a purple Oral-B in my paper sack of dental floss, toothpaste sample, and return appointment reminder. It’s become part of my normal.

So, when the office finally began offering appointments again and I got squeezed into a spot on a different hygienist’s schedule, it felt wrong. The new hygienist was also good. She was gentle and fast and seemed very nice. She didn’t ask me any direct questions while her fingers were actively in my mouth.

Just try me. Image by Daniel Albany from Pixabay

But she gave me a green toothbrush. She didn’t ask, and I didn’t realize her mistake until I was in the parking lot. What could I do? I wasn’t going to be the crazy lady who walked back in to demand a purple toothbrush.

That’s why it was such a relief this week when I walked into the office and was greeted by my regular hygienist and walked back out after my appointment with a brand-new purple Oral-B. It felt like emerging from prison with a better way of doing things. Probably. I’ve never actually emerged from prison. Or been there in the first place. I’m not much of rabble-rouser. But try to give me another green toothbrush and I might just carve it into a shiv.

The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

Does Superman Have Wisdom Teeth?

Recently I was asked a very serious question: “Knowing, as we do, that Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, and if the planet Krypton had not blown up, what superpowers would humans exhibit if they were to travel there?”

I say this is a serious question because it was posed to me by my fifteen-year-old son who, at the time, didn’t find it amusing in the least bit. In fact, the question came at the end of a long and very thoughtful analysis of the short story he’d just read for his English class.

I couldn’t actually figure out how the thoughts connected, but I’m sure they did. He’s very smart. He was also shaking off anesthesia, which might explain why a normally fairly rational kid was sounding a little loopy.

It is extremely difficult to understand the rapid string of words spewing out of the mouth of a post-op teenager with swollen chipmunk cheeks and a face mask.

Last week my son hit a developmental milestone, recommended by his dentist who looked at the latest x-ray of his mouth and condemned his wisest and most thoroughly impacted third set of molars to extraction. In the interest of preserving the results of a great deal of orthodontic work and avoiding a whole lot of future pain, we agreed.

We’ve been enormously fortunate that this is the first surgical procedure either of our children has had to undergo, and also that recovery, though not painless, has been pretty smooth and steady. I’m glad we got it done early, because the list of all the problems potentially caused by keeping your wisdom teeth is long and significantly scarier than the also pretty substantial list of potential problems of removing them. It turns out only about 2% of Americans over the age of 65 still have them.

Having too many teeth crammed into your mouth can be a serious problem, as we now know it was for fellow mammal and overlarge superstar Jumbo the elephant. Captured at only four years old after his mother was killed by hunters, Jumbo lived in London for twenty-two years where he delighted children by giving rides to scores of them on his enormous back. In 1882, much to the chagrin of the elephant-loving English public, Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum, allegedly because the elephant was getting a little hard to handle.

He wasn’t as large as Barnum claimed, but researchers say Jumbo wasn’t done growing by the time he died, and he might well have made it there. By Oliver Ditson & Co. – Library of Congress: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Touted as the largest elephant ever to live by the greatest exaggerator who ever lived, Jumbo was a hit in America as well, but there was a problem. By day he was a gentle giant, but by night, he became kind of a ferocious beast.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that researchers began to understand why. They looked at the bones and teeth of the deceased pachyderm and discovered that 19th century elephant husbandry wasn’t the best. Jumbo’s diet consisted of grasses, hay, and oats. Sometimes also coins and toys and sticky buns from his adoring fans, not to mention the whiskey that was meant to calm him down when he became too agitated.

What was lacking in his diet were the necessary twigs and barks that would have worn down his teeth had he lived as a wild elephant. This kind of roughage would have worn down his teeth and made room for new backup teeth to emerge and replace them. Without that process, the poor thing ended up with a tremendous toothache from the pressure of the new teeth pushing against the old.

What I picture when I think about performing oral surgery on the biggest elephant who ever lived. photo credit: wuestenigel Miniature people cleaning teeth on white backgroudn via photopin (license)

Jumbo died tragically only a few years after coming to America, but even if Barnum’s people had understood the source of the aggression problem they’d have had a hard time solving it. There were shockingly few oral and maxillofacial surgeons operating on elephants in late 19th century America. It might even be safe to assume that’s pretty much a super-duper sub-specialty kind of thing even today.

Fortunately, in 21st century America, it’s not too difficult to find one willing to work with human patients. My son was treated by a wonderful surgeon. The procedure was over pretty quickly without complications or whiskey, though I imagine that might have led to similar superman-themed questions.

He’s doing well, but at this point, I do want to note that this post was written not only with permission from my wisdom-toothless son, but at his insistence. Because even though he realizes he was pretty drugged up when he asked, he’d really like to know the answer to his question and he’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shake It Off

On Friday, January 14, 2011 in Times Square in New York, Alastair Galpin and Don Purdon shared a really long handshake. Brothers Rohit and Santosh Timilsina were there shaking hands, too, attempting to set the new world record for longest handshake recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records. The two pairs decided after thirty-three hours and three minutes that they would all four share the record, and then hopefully washed their hands.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

It’s a pretty impressive feat, if you’re one to be impressed by such things. Personally, I’m just curious how one words his status as handshake world record holder on a resume or brings it up on a date, which I’m guessing doesn’t last that long after such an impressive credential slips into the conversation.

One person that would definitely not have been impressed to see such a triumph would have been nurse Leila Given, who in 1929, lamented in the American Journal of Nursing that handshaking had become the preferred greeting style in the United States. She argued that shaking hands transfers disease agents from person to person and she recommended that we all keep our hands to ourselves.

There’s plenty of handshaking in Homer’s work and not a single mention of hand sanitizer. What a dangerous world it was. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While the handshake is certainly not the only human greeting behavior in the world, it has long been one of the most common. Its roots reach as far back as the 9th century BC when Assyrian King Shalmaneser III and an unidentified Babylonian ruler sealed a deal and someone grabbed a quick carving for posterity. Homer mentions handshaking in the Iliad and Odyssey. If Ancient Greek funerary art is to be trusted, the Greeks shook hands a lot.

Many historians suspect that the primary motivation behind the development of the handshake was to both indicate that one was not bearing a weapon and to check that the other guy wasn’t either. It’s possible, even, that the up and down motion of the handshake developed as a way to shake loose any weapons that might be hiding up sleeves and that might cause an otherwise friendly encounter to sour.

In America, the handshake took hold as the dominant form of friendly greeting probably as a result of the Quakers in the 17th century, who favored it over forms such as bowing or hat tipping, which often indicated an inequality in power.

Of course, in recent years, as we have become a bit more germ-aware, some have favored the fist bump. Though it has been shown to transfer fewer germs from hand to hand than does a traditional handshake, it does look vaguely ridiculous and occasionally causes inexplicable, and much more definitely ridiculous, explosions.

Friends Winning GIF by Pan Pivo

I assume it’s because of this that many people are now opting for the elbow tap, including politicians and the fully grown men who play professional baseball. I have to say, as silly as it looks in the latter group, it definitely beats the maybe too friendly tap on the backside.

But I suppose all greeting behaviors take a little getting used to. We’ve been shaking hands for a long time. In the post-Covid world of someday, maybe we will shake hands again. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe, ninety-years later, we’ll finally heed Leila Given’s warning.

The last time I shook someone’s hand, more than a month ago now, was at an outdoor book signing. Both of us used hand sanitizer immediately after contact. It also didn’t last thirty-three hours and three minutes, but I am secure in the knowledge that neither of us had any weapons up our sleeves.

Shave and a Haircut and a Tooth Extraction

In 1537, in the midst of a several year conflict between France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Ambroise Paré made an important discovery while treating the many wounded soldiers. By intuitively employing the scientific method, which would not be described by Francis Bacon for another eighty-two years, Paré examined patients treated in the traditionally accepted way by cauterizing their wounds with boiling oil, and compared them to those he’d treated with a balm made from eggs, rose oil, and turpentine when his oil supplies ran out.

Strange as it might sound to our modern ears, those patients who hadn’t been subjected to painful blistering by the application of boiling oil actually did a little better. Paré’s method didn’t catch on widely, but it did inspire him to make closer use of observation and data in deciding how to treat patients. And that eventually won him the title “father of surgery” in some history books.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this man earned such a distinguished moniker. He was, after all, a barber.

barber pole
In some sates there are tight regulations about what kinds of businesses are allowed to hang a barber pole. Good thing, too. No one wants to accidentally wander into a beauty shop for an amputation. photo credit: Singing With Light Haircut time via photopin (license)

Barbers had been filling an important role in the medical community since at least 1163, when Pope Alexander III forbade clergy from practicing bloodletting. The barbers, whose experience with sharp implements had made them good assistants in the gruesome procedure, stepped up. What else could they do? Ailing people needed that bad blood drained and heroic barbers were ready to answer the call.

For centuries, barbers offered an alternative to physicians when none were available or affordable or willing to perform procedures they felt were beneath them, such as bloodletting, teeth pulling, bone setting, or limb amputating. The origin of the striped barber pole can be traced back to this time, as an advertisement for the bloody services offered inside the barbershop. And really, what could feel better after having a tooth yanked out than a bang trim and a nice clean shave?

haircut
Standard issue surgical equipment. photo credit: Cross Duck Social distancing drives you up the WAHL via photopin (license)

I don’t know, but I do know that when my husband recently asked me to cut his hair for him, I felt about as comfortable as I would have been if he’d asked me to remove his arm. Like much of the world right now, our area has a lot of, hopefully temporarily, closed down businesses as we all do our best to hunker down and flatten the Covid-19 infection curve. That includes barbershops and hair salons, which makes sense, because the act of haircutting isn’t all that compatible with practicing social distance.

Of course, what that means is that as the weeks drag on, woefully unqualified family members are being called upon to fill the gap. My husband works in the healthcare field and is still leaving the house regularly, where he is seen in public. And he likes to wear his hair short—not all-over buzzed with clippers, because that would be too simple, but short, nonetheless.

It was getting a little shaggy. It was driving him kind of crazy. And, what can I say? I love him. It was time for this heroic, amateur, and entirely unskilled barber to answer the call.

I grabbed the clippers and the scissors and went to work. While I can’t honestly say it turned out perfectly, I don’t think it turned out too bad. My husband assures me it feels like a fresh haircut to him and he’s pleased with the results. I don’t ever want to do it again, and even though our dentist office is also closed for the foreseeable future, I don’t think my modicum of success in this area qualifies me to start pulling teeth, either.

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I was glad I had a brave guinea pig. Look at those hands—steady as a surgeon.

It wouldn’t be true to say that Ambroise Paré so completely lacked training in actual medicine, such as it was in the sixteenth century. He had attended L’Hôtel-Dieu (a way famous and super old French hospital) to become what was known as a barber surgeon. I think that might parallel most closely to today’s nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, whose training and scope of practice while significant, is much less extensive than that of a medical doctor.

But then I didn’t exactly go into this haircutting experience blind, either. My husband has, on occasion, cut the hair of both of our sons, and the youngest was due. With much coaching, I practiced first on my surprisingly cooperative twelve-year-old.

I can’t honestly say that attempt went as well. He likes his hair just a little bit longer on top and he has a troublesome cowlick that forms a spiky bit in the front if it isn’t cut just right. It’s now definitely not. But he doesn’t have to leave the house anytime soon and he looks adorable in a hat. Also, thankfully, there was no bloodletting in the process.

Modern Day Plague Fashion

Sometime in the vicinity of 1630, a superstar physician by the name of Charles de l’Orme branched out into the realm of fashion design. By this time he’d enjoyed quite a few years of a brilliant medical career, serving as personal physician to several members of the famed House of Medici and a French king or two. If anyone in the medical field seemed to know what they were doing (and really, it’s only in hindsight that we know they definitely didn’t), this was the guy. He was kind of the Dr. Oz of his day.

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Never fear, this overgrown omen of death is here to make sure you’re counted among the desperately ill. If you’re lucky, he might even bleed you or apply liquid mercury to your skin while he’s here.

And one, among many, of the medical challenges he and his fellow physicians faced was the frequent recurrence and constant threat of Bubonic plague. In 1630, there hadn’t been a full-on pandemic level outbreak of the plague in quite a while, the previous major one occurring nearly three hundred years earlier. But it still existed in pockets, and Charles de l’Orme had some ideas for how physicians could be ready if the worst should happen.

He designed the first personal protective equipment for the large numbers of plague doctors who would be on the front line of any impending pandemic. The design included a waxed leather coat covered in animal fat, leggings, boots, gloves, a wide brimmed black hat, and a mask that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. In case that wasn’t enough there was also a cane, allegedly used for keeping sick patients at a safe social distance, or perhaps beating the disease-causing demons from out of them.

The freakish mask included glass eye coverings, a beak-like appendage containing herbs and spices for freshening the dangerous miasma out of the air, and openings wide enough to allow for easy breathing of plenty of contagion.

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The less frightening garb of the modern, much more competent, plague doctor. Still a little scary, but much better.

By the time 1665 rolled around and brought with it the Great Plague of London and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in that city alone, huge numbers of plague doctors, most of whom didn’t actually have much in the way of medical knowledge even by 1665 standards, were suited up and ready to become a significant portion of that number.

Fortunately, our personal protective equipment has improved a great deal since then, as has our epidemiological understanding, and those medical professionals well trained to make good use of both. We also, thankfully, have given up on the terror-inducing, overgrown crow heads.

I’m very thankful for that each time I don a much friendlier-looking cloth mask and venture to the grocery store. It’s still an odd sensation to be there, and at least for me, not a very uplifting one. It’s difficult to communicate, or even offer a friendly smile, from behind a mask. That little covering adds an extra sense of gravity and an eerie sense loneliness to the experience.

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I might be smiling. But you’ll never know.

I know the end of this, while not necessarily in sight, is coming. In my corner of world our number of cases are still climbing, but our projections suggest the curve has been flattened and that when we reach the worst, our medical community will be ready and able to manage it.

I also know that unlike the plague doctors of the seventeenth century whose primary role was one of data collection more than medical treatment, our epidemiologists are as on top of this thing as they can be. To borrow a slightly adapted line from The Martian, they are sciencing the spit out of this. And they’re doing it much more fashionably.

Advice for Good Health from 1838

I hope you are faring well in your corner of the world. Here in my Midwestern US community, most of us have been in strict social distance mode for about ten or eleven days while the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases have been climbing. As a writer who works from home anyway, the biggest change in my routine is that I have fewer excuses to rely on when I fail to get any writing done. At the same time, I’ve accomplished less than ever.

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Even my attempt to journal about the experience of living in this strange time (using only my neatest handwriting for the benefit of future historical fiction writers) has been sporadic at best.

This should be the perfect opportunity to finally finish a polished draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Alas, I spend most of my time stressing about how far out of our routine the whole family has become, trying not to worry to distraction about my spouse who works in the healthcare field, and scrolling through too much news about this virus we still don’t know nearly as much about as we all like to pretend we do.

Of course, that’s a very human response. When faced with a new threat, without the time required to conduct thorough research and design solid tests yielding statistically significant results, we observe what we can, make some guesses, and post about our conclusions on social media.

We live in a pretty enlightened age, medically speaking, so if we step outside of our panic for a minute, we can understand that there are still a lot of answers we don’t know and won’t be able to find out for a while. But in some ways, medicine also hasn’t changed that much.

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At least no one is suggesting this is a good idea anymore. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

So today, I thought I’d share some good health information from my research for the novel I’m currently not finishing. This comes from a doctor by the name of Sylvanus Goheen who in 1838, served as a missionary physician to Monrovia in what was then the Colony of Liberia. Much like the physicians of today, Dr. Goheen faced a disease he didn’t understand as well as he would have liked.

In his case, it was malaria, which claimed the lives of so many missionaries and emigrants that Liberia had come to be called the White Man’s Graveyard (which is also the current working title of the book I should be revising right now).

With the still unnamed disease certainly not yet understood to be a parasitic infection transmitted by mosquitos, Dr. Goheen had to do the best he could with the observations he could make. He came up with the following advice for staying healthy:

  1. Give strict attention to diet—eat as nearly as possible the same food used in America and chew well.
  2. Eat light and early suppers and when feeling off, abstain from food. Always keep bowels regular.
  3. Avoid the sun, and rain, never get wet and avoid currents of air when perspiring freely.
  4. Never become fatigued either by bodily exertion or mental exercise and particularly refrain from reading at night.
  5. Keep out of night air and remain at home and in the house after nightfall and in your bedroom in the morning with windows closed until 8:00, for the first four months.
  6. Go to meeting but once per day, never take long walks nor boat excursions.
  7. Keep the mind easy and composed and talk or think little about the fever.
  8. When attacked, eat less than nature demands and confine yourself strictly to a gruel or arrowroot diet throughout convalescence.

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Not to question a doctor who attended almost a full year of medical school, which is still almost a year more than I did, but I see no problem with this.

Some of this is probably pretty good advice, even perhaps applicable to our current Covid-19-driven world. It may not be a bad idea, for our psychological well-being as well as our long-term physical comfort, if we could roughly maintain our pre-pandemic diet that likely included fewer Oreos and potato chips. It also certainly couldn’t hurt to try to keep our minds easy and less focused on the fever. And we should definitely stay in at night, safely socially distanced.

But then the list also includes some things that probably aren’t quite right for today. I’m not overly concerned about occasionally finding myself perspiring in the breeze, which might happen on that long, isolated walk I’m perfectly happy to take. And under no circumstances can I see myself giving up reading at night.

Looking back, it’s pretty easy to see that Dr. Goheen’s advice wasn’t quite right for his situation, either. He was doing what physicians do and drawing the very best conclusions he could within the limited knowledge available.

Much like him, we are faced today with some unknowns, a lot of fear, and a medical field that is working very hard to gather the best information and offer the best advice it can in an impossibly short amount of time. We’re all doing what we are able to keep ourselves and our world as healthy as we can.

Stay safe, everyone. If you’re stuck at home, write a novel or something. And for goodness sake, chew thoroughly and keep your bowels regular.