January 18, 2013

Primitive Physick - John Wesley

Christian theologian and cleric, John Wesley (1703-1791), who is credited with founding the Methodist denomination of Christianity, and due to whose teachings the Methodists were leading activists in the social issues of their day such as prison reform and abolitionism, is not necessarily someone we would expect to write a book detailing treatments for all sorts of medical ailments. But this is what he did in a relatively little-known work of his entitled Primitive Physick; Or An Easy And Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases

It is notable, however, that during his lifetime Wesley was considered a quack, both spiritually and medically (Madden, 2007). He led an itinerant lifestyle in order to preach as he never had his own church, and it is thought that the prevalence of disease as well as the prevalence and tendency of quacks who combined their treatments with theology were among the reasons behind writing this book.
According to Wesley, the word 'primitive' was akin to 'original' or 'early', and 'physic' was a general term for health care, especially “how to live in accordance with nature by proper diet and exercise, both to restore health and to retain it,” (Maddox, 2007). Taken together, Primitive Physick was a book that would be classed as holistic or alternative medicine today.

In Ingram's Patterns Of Madness In The Eighteenth Century: A Reader, it is noted that Wesley saw disease as a consequence of the Fall and thus regarded mankind as primarily responsible for its own sufferings. Wesley says as much in his preface:

"When man came first out of the hands of the Great Creator, clothed in body, as well as in soul, with immortality and incorruption, there was no place for physic, or the art of healing. As he knew no sin, he knew no pain, no sickness, weakness, or bodily disorder ... But since man rebelled against the Sovereign of heaven and earth, how entirely is the scene changed! ... The seeds of wickedness and pain, of sickness and death, are now lodged in our inmost substance; whence a thousand disorders continually spring, even without the aid of external violence."

Wesley covered the common illnesses of his day in alphabetical order; mental illnesses, curiously, are not distinguished from physical ailments, as in Wesley's view both are derived from man's first disobedience. They are thus stigmatised no more than other illnesses. 

What follows are Wesley's interesting and amusing remedies for various types of psychological conditions, especially the mania associated with rabies:

44. An Hysteric Cholic.

164. Mrs. Watts, by using the cold bath two and twenty times in a month, was entirely cured of an hysteric cholic, fits, and convulsive motions, continual sweatings and vomiting, wandering pains in her limbs and head, with total loss of appetite.
165. In the fit, half a pint of water with a little wheat-flour in it, and a spoonful of vinegar.
166. Or of warm lemonade: tried.
167. Or, take 20, 30, or 40 drops of balsam of peru on fine sugar: if need be, take this twice or thrice a day:
168. Or, in extremity, boil three ounces of Burdock-seed in water, which give as a clyster:
169. Or, twenty drops of laudanum, in any proper clyster, which gives instant ease. 

45. A Nervous Cholic.

170. Use the cold-bath daily for three or four weeks.
171. Or, take quicksilver and acqua sulphurata daily for a month.

136. Hypochondriac and Hysteric Disorders.

426. Use cold bathing:
427. Or, take an ounce of quicksilver every morning, and ten drops of Elixir of Vitriol in the afternoon, in a glass of cold water.

151. Lunacy.

468. Give a decoction of agrimony four times a day:
469. Or, rub the head several times a day with vinegar, in which ground-ivy leaves have been infused:
470. Or, daily take an ounce of distilled vinegar:
471. Or, boil juice of ground-ivy with sweet oil and white wine into an ointment. Shave the head, anoint it therewith, and chafe it every other day for three weeks. Bruise also the leaves and bind them on the head, and give three spoonfuls of the juice warm every morning.
472. Or, be elecrified: tried.

152. Raging Madness.

473. Apply to the head, cloths dipt in cold water:
474. Or, set the patient with his head under a great water-fall, as long as his strength will bear: or, pour water on his head out of a tea-kettle:
475. Or, let him eat nothing but apples for a month:
476. Or, nothing but bread and milk: tried.

153. Bite of a Mad Dog.

477. Plunge into cold water daily for twenty days, and keep as long under as possible. This has cured, even after the hydrophobia was begun.
478. Or, mix ashes of trefoil with hog's-lard, and anoint the part as soon as possible. Repeat it twice or thrice at six hours distance. This has cured many: and particularly a dog bit on the nose by a mad dog.
479. Or, mix a pound of salt, with a quart of water. Squeeze, bathe, and wash the wound with this for an hour. Then bind some salt upon it for twelve hours.
N.B. The Author of this receipt was bit six times by mad dogs, and always cured himself by this means.
480. Or, mix powdered liver-wort, four drachms: black pepper, two drachms. Divide this into four parts, and take one in warm milk for four mornings, fasting. Dr. Mead affirms he never knew this to fail: but it has sometimes failed.
481. Or, take two or three spoonfuls of ribwort, morning and evening, as soon as possible after the bite. Repeat this for two or three changes of the moon. It has not been known to fail.
482. Immediately consult an honest physician.

Ingram, Allan. Patterns of Madness In The Eighteenth Century: A Reader. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998.

Madden, Deborah. 'A Cheap, Safe and Natural Medicine': Religion, Medicine and Culture in John Wesley's Primitive Physic (Amsterdam/New York: Rodolpi, 2007).

Maddox, Randy.  “John Wesley on Holistic Health and Healing” in Methodist History, 46:1 (October 2007), 4-33.

January 5, 2013

Lead Astray


A recent and interesting article at the investigative MotherJones magazine discusses links between crime rates and the prevalence of lead emissions, touting the latter as America's Real Criminal Element. A follow-up also noted interesting connections involving lead paint.

Kevin Drum does a good job of convincing readers that, rather than political measures being responsible for falling crime rates, the gradual decline of crack use or increased incarcerations, the rather counterintuitive proposal that said rates have dropped due to the gradual withdrawal of leaded petrol. According to Drum, there is a
"growing body of research linking lead exposure in small children with a whole raft of complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities."
And among the more important neurologically relevant observations, Drum made special note of a PLOS study; Cecil et. al (2008) found that lead exposure had in fact contributed to reduced/decreased myelination. Myelination refers to the process by which neurons are surrounded by a layer or sheath of myelin, a type of fat that both insulates the neuron and allows for faster transmission and complex communications, and accounts for the composition of the brain's "white matter". Lead exposure was to be a factor in causing a degrading alteration in myelin organisation. In other words, less myelination leads to less co-ordination and slower connections as the neurons will not be communicating effectively.

The same study used MRI-scanning to determine the effect of lead poisoning on the whole brain. Neuronal loss was found in various areas such as the cognitive and emotional areas of the anterior cingulate cortex, regions associated with "general intellectual and executive functioning, antisocial behaviors, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)". Poor scores were found in physical movement tests too, but by far the largest and most serious finding related to a permanent reduction in grey matter, specifically in the medial part of the pre-frontal cortex. According to one of the researchers, Kim Cecil, lead poisoning affected precisely the brain areas "that make us most human", as the pre-frontal cortex is associated with the brain's executive functions; emotion regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning and mental flexibility.

These findings certainly deserve attention although, as Deborah Blum (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and science writer) noted in her response, the research has been covered before, both by Drum (Jan 2012) and other authors/publications, including the Washington Post back in 2007. What makes this article different is Drum's seeming enthusiasm to attribute up to 90% of crime to lead exposure and poisoning. As Blum notes,
"does it trump drugs, poverty, urban gang warfare, education, and other such issues to the point that they account for a bare ten percent of the crime statistics? That's a harder case to make, partly because as Drum himself notes correlation is not causation: the fact, for instance, that falling crime follows a pattern of falling lead exposure doesn't rule out many other influences."
Blum also brings a calming elucidation to the worrying neuroscientific findings as well, stating that, while it is true that lead exposure may lead to significant neurological deficits, it is much more complicated than as simply thought. For instance, reduced myelination can also be down to malnutrition and other environmental factors, and also that research into the situation hasn't yet produced any indication of a clear biological pathway through which exposure to lead can influence individuals to become antisocial and criminal.

As well as indicating other sources of lead that could cause concern, there is agreement that increasing evidence does point to lead as being a significant threat to health and that further research could increase the knowledge and evidence base through which solutions can be found.

If you have time, go take a look at Drum's article. Aside from the '90%' issue (that has since been corrected) it is littered with links to research, making it an edifying and extremely interesting read.