BY MICHAEL MILENSON
In 1767, as American colonist protests against “taxation without representation” intensified, a Boston publisher reprinted a book by a British physician seemingly tailor-made for the growing spirit of independence.
Let’s talk about “democratization of health information”, “participatory medicine” and “citizens of health”! Every man his own doctorby Dr. John Theobald, had an impressive subtitle: Being a complete collection of effective and approved remedies for every incident disease in the human body. With clear instructions for common use. Necessary in all families, particularly those residing in the country.
Theobald’s fellow doctors no doubt flinched at the citation of the 2North DakotaThe 19th-century Greek philosopher Celsus featured prominently on the book’s cover.
“Diseases are not cured by eloquence,” the quote said, “but by remedies, so that if a person without any knowledge becomes well acquainted with the remedies that have been discovered by practice, he will be a much better doctor than one who has cultivated his talent for speaking without experience.”
Translation: It is better to read my book than to consult inferior doctors.
To celebrate the independent spirit of the American people, I decided to compare some of Dr. Theobald’s recommendations with those of his 21st century equivalent, “Dr. Google.” Like Dr. Google, which receives a whopping 70,000 health care search queries every minute, Dr. Theobald also provides citations for his advice, which he assures readers is based on “the writings of the most eminent physicians”.
Sometimes the two advisers sync up over the centuries. “Colds can be cured by lying long in bed, drinking plenty of lukewarm buttermilk, with a few drops of staghorn liquor,” writes Dr. Theobald, citing a “Dr. Cheyne. Dr. Google’s expert, the staff at the Mayo Clinic, offers much the same recipe: Stay hydrated, perhaps using warm water with lemon and honey, and try to rest. Personally, I think “sack of whey” (sherry plus weak milk and sugar) sounds more fun.
Dr. Google wisely advises treating a sprain by applying ice to it. In Dr. Theobald’s day, when the absence of reliable refrigeration meant ice was not always available, a remedy attributed to “Dr. Sharp” was at once more complex and fragrant: “After fomenting with warm vinegar, apply a poultice of stale beer and oatmeal, with a little lard, every day until pain and swelling subside.” .
In Every man his own doctor herbal remedies abound. To remove warts, for example, Dr. Theobald, quoting “Dr. Heister,” recommends “rubbing them with celandine juice.” Surprisingly, Dr. Google agrees. A search for “celandine” and “warts” quickly turns up an article in a public health journal that concludes that celandine can, in fact, make viral skin warts go away.
Even more unexpected is what at first glance appears to be a false claim about cancer. Dr. Theobald writes that “Dr. Storck of Vienna strongly recommends the use of hemlock in cancer cases and gives several striking examples of its success. Surprisingly, Dr. Google essentially agrees, revealing that ground hemlock contains paclitaxel (Taxol), which is used as a chemotherapy drug.
But just as too much Googling can be dangerous to your health, it can also Every man his own doctor. “Headache”? Attributed to “Dr. Haller”, we get this remedy: “Apply leeches behind the ears and take twenty drops of castor in a glass of water frequently.” Aspirin, anyone?
Similarly, while acknowledging that diabetes cannot always be cured, Dr. Theobald’s recipe, taken from “Dr. Mead,” he pauses: “Take two ounces of sassafras shavings, one ounce of guaiac, three ounces of licorice root, crushed coriander seeds, six drachmas; infuse them cold in a gallon of lime-water for two or three days, the dose being half a pint three or four times in a day.”
As the historian Gordon Wood relates in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, one consequence of the nation’s revolutionary success was a growing sense that the common people could not trust the elites. In an analysis that sounds uncomfortably familiar, Wood writes that the attacks on elite opinion and the holding of “common ordinary judgment” resulted in a dispersion of authority in which knowledge and truth “had to become more fluid and ever-changing.” ”.
While we should certainly celebrate the kind of democratization of medical information symbolized by Every man his own doctor (which would be reprinted for decades), as well as today’s available online media, availability does not guarantee reliability. As with democracy itself, where the people and their leaders need to see themselves as a partnership, a doctor-patient partnership of trust remains crucial.
Michael L. Millenson is president of Health Quality Advisors LLC, author, and visiting scholar at the Kellogg School of Management. You can reach him at michael@healthqualityadvisors.