Interesting If True - Episode 40: Doctor Yeti, That's Who!
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that believes laughter is the best medicine… if these are the only other options.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are:
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that if you take the thread out of a sewing machine it becomes a stabbing machine.
And it’s time for another…
When last we spoke of yee-oldie medicine it was pre-plague, when we could still get together. Now, having quarantined for what feels like forever, we might have some idea of the kind of desperation that drives someone to wear pigeons in the hope that they’re healing power will at least get you to a Chipoltey and back in one piece.
Sadly, no such luck.
If Covid doesn’t get you one of its mutant spawn might! But enough about Jubilee, it’s round two for medieval (-ish) medical nonsense—and this time, it’s personal! We’re gonna find out if Shea knows enough about yee-oldie doctor’n to be proclaimed If True Studio’s new resident on call.
If you were a dirty, dirty villager in the before-times, you were probably worried about Yee-Oldie European Super-death. Or as you lay people may know it, Yersinia pestis—and boy-howdy was it a pest. By the end of the second plague it had killed nearly a third of Europe.
And yeah, I said “second.” Turns out that It’s had three noteworthy runs.
The first known as the Plague of Justinian, affected the Sassanid empire (that’s Neo-Persian, or the last Persian imperial dynasty) and their, apparently, enemies the Byzantines. The initial outbreak killed an estimated 25 million and over the course of two more centuries of recurrences, another 25.
The second was the Black Death which ran wild through Europe on flee-covered rats, rather than the noxious odors they attributed it to but refused to really do anything about until August of 1858…
And the third was in China. It had moved around the Southwest for some time before infecting Guangzhou (aka Canton), a water source for nearby Hong Kong. It killed 20,000 people becoming known as the 1894 Hong Kong plague. From there it spread to ports around the world as a proper pandemic infecting people globally with icky Black Death, but also a ton of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian bigotry including the Geary Act.
Closing on that nightmare (… in 19-fucking-43) and given what you’ve learned about the plague, if you wanted to avoid the Black Death’s fated grasp, where was the best place to keep your farts?
Yep, that’s right, a mason jar.
Physicians, using the world as loosely as it’s ever been used, would tell people to trap their terrible tushy turbulence. The goal here wasn’t to stave off the lingering effects of an all boiled-cabbage and sadness diet but to build up one’s stockpiles of PPE. That’s right, in the event of a Black Death incursion these life-saving jars of your own literal farts were to be used as a breathing apparatus, not unlike airplane masks or cartoonishly holding an upside down canoe on the ocean floor. Because… “it’s sterile to your own body” or something I’m sure.
I did have to do a little Googly-Googly on this because… ya know… but it turns out, from reputable sources, that it was basically one of many smell-based Hail Mary’s. Later called the “therapeutic stink” the idea was that if you had a face full of this, or roses if you were a money-having person, you could avoid the stink of death.
David Havilland, author of Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies and Cures, first explained to AOL News in 2011.
“It was believed that the plague was caused by deadly vapors in the air so many doctors thought it could, in turn, be cured by bodily vapors. They figured an equally foul vapor, like a fart, could combat the disease, so they suggested patients store their farts in a jar. This way, when the plague appeared in their neighborhood, they could open the jar and inhale the fumes to ward off the bad vapors that came with the disease. It made sense to them.”
Basically, you wouldn’t get plague from the miasma if you diluted the infected air you breath with something equally… potent.
Are you nice and warmed up now? Your medieval medical spidey-sense tingles eh?
Good, because it’s time for a balding, old, white man to have his say up in this medical show!
I give you Bald’s Leechbook!
The yee-oldie text is right aligned and appears to be some form of elvish—it also has a lot of elf-stuff in it actually. The book takes its name from a random phrase at the end of the second book which reads Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscrilbere iussit, which according wikipedia and my amazing linguistic skills translates to “Bald owns this book which he ordered Cild to compile.” Unfortunately, that’s a lie, because Bald is probably dead and the book now resides at the British Library in London. So there Bald, ya jerk.
The book is interesting as Bald lists recipes for his curatives and, like our last foray into medieval medicine, has been translated by the lovely folks at the British Library.
And with that, let’s dive into our quiz!
If you needed to cure your “wark” you would, apparently, crush together some beetroot and honey, then smear the juice all over the patient’s head, then have the patient lay face-down in a sunny area until the mixture melts and runs down the person’s face. If that didn’t take, you should repeat but this time add the additional curative elements of laurel oil and vinegar. What, prey tell, was bald seeking to cure?
That’s right, headaches!
Bonus round: what if the headache is the cause of a head injury? What then should the doctor apply to the patients head?
Yep, you’ll want to muddle some betony leaves (mint) and rub that jazz right into the open wound. If they’re still not better treatment can be augmented by jambing some cress up their nose. Cress being the short, leafy, herb visual similar to bean sprouts.
We all know that honey is actually antimicrobial because it contains a small amount of peroxide. But like all good first steps, but must be modified by combination with ash of burnt periwinkle flowers before treatment of what?
You guessed it, cataracts, or as it was known then “mistiness of the eyes.”
Bonus round: Bumblebee honey and periwinkle ash might be the common curative but it wasn’t the most preferred. Perhaps due to expense but we don’t really know, what else would yee-oldie people take to cure their misty eyes?
Naturally, the answer is “raw hare’s gall (liver secretions)” to applied to the face.
Of course, periwinkle may also be difficult to come by so Bald lists an appropriate substitute in the form of “the fatty parts of all river fishes melted in the sun.”
Regardless of ingredients, the mixture was to be painted onto the face with a feather. I took to the source material (xxxviii, 152, ch, ii) for information not given in the listicle and found that it was to be applied morning, noon, after dinner, and before bed until your eyes had healthful, dried, crust on them. Then it was time to, finally, rinse your eyes clean for which you would need a recently pregnant madan… willing to rub her nips into your eye-crust while you ring out her teats like an old bar towel, power milk-washing your eyes. Yep. He also suggests rubbing coriander into the boobies and/or your eyes before hand for… science.
Having cured our eyes of mistiness, we much now turn our attention to the maiden whose teats we just juiced. Surely, her eyes doth be swollen and to return them to luster we will need what, to apply directly to them?
Crab eye stalks of course. One is to catch a live crab, snip off it’s eyes, return it to the water live, then prepare its eyes in a mortar and pestle until the result can be rubbed directly into your boob-maiden’s eyes. Then, everyone is happy.
Garlic, onion, and goose fat all go well together if you’re making a Mirepoix but why stop with soup? When mixed and cooked down the concoction was used to alleviate what condition?
An earache of course! The good-poix was drizzled liberally into the ear canal to cure earaches. And while this may sound more flavorful than helpful, it was a damn sight better than the other options. Without goose fat you’re left to substitute ingredients from other salves like drippings from crushed ant eggs or the mushed up gall (again, liver gunk) of a bull, a buck, anda boar. All of which was then poured into the ear for the sake of curing the earache and not at all causing just, a ton, of infection.
If blood runneth from your nose “too much” because it was, after all, yee-oldie times and a little bit of blood leaking out of you is totally standard, what might be applied to stop the flow of Satan’s face-juice?
That’s right, betony (a purple flower) and a honey rue. To be stuffed up the nose to stop the bleeding. Should bleeding continue and again need to be stanched, it is best to “put waybroad into the ear” of your patient. That’s a common green leafy plant by the way. If again, this time “poke into the ear a whole ear of bere or barley; so he be unaware of” the nosebleed. Because if there’s one thing that’ll distract you from a nosebleed it’s some weirdo shoving a bunch of barley into your ear. Bonus fact: he says this is good for horses too (Book I, Ch, viii, 55).
When dealing with “neck sickness” which included sore throats, swelling, quinsy, tonsillitis, and whatever else might discomfort you between your jaw and collarbone. For this he suggested, you guessed it, a honey based salve. Of course, this isn’t the only ingredient so… what do you mix with honey for troubles of the neck?
Yep, “a white thost,” dried and crushed. What is a white thost you might ask? Well it’s not a thick white girl, it’s album graecum, better known as dehydrated dog or hyena crap. You know how sometimes you’ll see all-white dog crap? That happens because of oxygen exposure and is exactly the thing we’re looking for to cure you of neck. There are some considerations though, for example, per Bald the dog it comes from “must gnaw a bone ere he dropped the thost,” otherwise your neck will just keep on necking. So you need to find a white dog poo left by a dog who didn’t mind chewing his treat right next to where he dropped yours.
For our final treatment, Bald recommends:
“take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks’ gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather”
What do you suppose he was looking to treat?
Of course infections of the eye. What else would it be?
Bald’s prescription has garnered some recent attention though. At what I can only assume was the request of the manuscript marketing team the passage was translated by Dr. Christine Lee so that researchers at the Nottingham University Centre for Biomolecular Sciences could give it the old college try.
In the end they set up three batches and tested them on cultures of three commonly found and hard to treat bacteria, staphylococcus aureus, staphylococcus epidermidis, and Pseudomonas aerguinosa in both synthetic wounds and infected wounds on mice.
Skipping ahead a bit, one their own the ingredients did nothing of note, but when combined as described the mixture was startlingly effective: only about one in a thousand bacteria survived application. For reference, Vancomycin, today’s go to for MRSA has approximately the same level of antibacterial activity.
Next scientists diluted the salve to test effective concentrations and hopefully uncover its mechanism of action. And, interestingly, they found that even when too diluted to kill bacteria directly the mixture still interfered with bacterial cell-cell communication, aka, quorum sensing.
Quorum sensing is critical to biofilm generation. A biofilm is more or less what it sounds like, it’s a film of bacteria generated biological matter that makes a bubble around an infection. Inside the bubble the bacteria are able to form large colonies while the film itself is impervious to antimicrobials, antibiotics, and many detergents.Given that, something that blocks the formation of this film could be invaluable in treating antibiotic resistant infections.
Dr Freya Harrison, who led the work in the laboratory at Nottingham, commented that they were surprised by the efficacy and:
“hopeful that Bald’s eyesalve might show some antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.”
Continuing their work the scientists are hopeful that this could lead to breakthroughs in treating things like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). IF you want to know more about the project check out the show notes, I’ve included a cool video from the project and some cool links to read. If you’re really interested, the entire Leechbook is also linked.
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Let’s face it: we could all use a little more fun in our lives. It’s easy to get bogged down in the boring, the banal, the overly-familiar. Fun facts are like an instant antidote for the day-to-day doldrums. Nothing stokes your fire like curiosity!
And that’s not all: research shows that learning new things provides a positive boost to your brain, and can even increase your overall happiness and well-being. Like any other muscle, your brain responds to training. If you want abs, start doing crunches. If you want a healthy, happy brain, make sure you’re learning.
So if fun facts are what you’re looking for, you came to the right place. I’ve collected some of the most outrageous, most mind-blowing, and fun facts I’ve learned researching for the show.
- There are 5 countries in the world that don’t have airports. You heard correctly, countries without airports!
The smallest country in the world is Vatican City, a city-state with a area of just 44 hectares or .17 sq miles,, and a population of around 840 people. Entirely surrounded by the capital city of Rome, Italy, Vatican City has no airports or highways. Vatican City has one heliport used by the Pope and visiting heads of state.
Monaco is a city-state situated in the French Riviera. It is bordered on three sides by France and along one side by the Mediterranean sea. Monaco is the second-smallest country in the world with a geographic area of just 2.02 kilometers (0.78 square miles), and a population of 36,371. The closest airport to Monaco is the Côte d’Azur Airport in Nice, France. Monaco has one heliport located in the district of Fontvieille.
San Marino is a landlocked micro state surrounded on all sides by Italy. San Marino is about 24 square miles and has an estimated population of over 30,000. The closest airport is the Federico Fellini International Airport in Rimini, Italy. San Marino does have one private airstrip in Torraccia and an international heliport located in Borgo Maggiore.
Liechtenstein is a landlocked country found between Switzerland and Austria. Its geographic area is 62 square miles, and it has an estimated population of 35,000. The closest major airport to Lichtenstein is the Zürich Airport in Switzerland which is 130 kilometers (80 miles) away. The nearest public airport is St. Gallen Airport, also in Switzerland, which is 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. Liechtenstein does have one heliport located in Balzers.
Landlocked between Spain and France, Andorra is the largest country on the list that lacks an airport. Andorra is about 468 square kilometers (181 square miles) in size and has a population of 85,000 as of 2012. The closest major airports are Barcelona–El Prat in Spain and Toulouse in France. The airports in Toulouse and Barcelona are both a three hours’ drive from Andorra. The closest public airport is Perpignan – Rivesaltes Airport, which is 160 km (99 mi) away which offers flights within France and to Great Britain. Andorra does have three heliports in La Massana, Arinsal, and Escaldes-Engordany.
- On December 1, 2014, NASA retired a historic piece of equipment at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It wasn’t a rocket, or even a deep space nine-iron—it was the original countdown clock, an analog display the size of a titan’s wristwatch that stood across the river from the rocket launch site and stoically ticked off the seconds until blastoff.
Countdown clocks allow technicians and astronauts to synchronize their moves throughout a rocket launch sequence, from T-minus 43 hours all the way until the final ignition. But their appeal goes way beyond practicality. The clock also serves as the visual version of a whistling teakettle, allowing spectators to ramp up their excitement as launch time draws nearer. When those last few seconds tick away before a launch, it’s dramatic, emotional—even cinematic. Which makes sense considering the rocket-launch countdown clock wasn’t invented by meticulous engineers, but dreamed up by a filmmaker: science fiction pioneer Fritz Lang. Lang, well known for his film classic “Metropolis.”
Lang and his advisors came up with a number of spacefaring features that, years later, showed up on actual launchpads. The astronauts lock into footstraps to keep from floating around, and the rocket itself has multiple stages and engines that it jettisons one at a time, foreshadowing modern designs. Another prescient decision came together in editing. The launch itself is a tense moment, worthy of a dramatic buildup. Lang was anti-sound, and refused to add any effects, so loudly revving up the blasters was out of the picture. Instead, he decided to use a less obvious suspense technique: intertitles.
As the astronauts lie in their bunks, eyes wide and jaws tense, the screen cuts to an announcement: “Noch 10 Sekunden-!”—10 seconds remaining! The mission leader grips the firing lever—”Noch 6 Sekunden!” The numbers get bigger, filling the screen: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, JETZT! Now! The lever lowers, and the rocket blasts out of the water. Nearly a hundred years later, it still gets the heart pumping.
- The term “the whole 9 yards” came from WWII fighter pilots in the South Pacific. When arming their airplanes on the ground, the .50 caliber machine gun ammo belts measured exactly 27 feet, before being loaded into the fuselage. If the pilots fired all their ammo at a target, it got “the whole 9 yards.”
- Michelangelo wrote a poem about how much he hated painting the Sistine Chapel
One translation of the poem is:
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.
“Michaelangelo: To Giovanni Da Pistoia When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel (by Michaelangelo Buonarroti)” from Zeppo’s First Wife.
- Poverty is universal, jobs are scarce, large families are crammed into mud-brick homes and meals often are constituted of little more than the subsistence crops residents grow — mainly corn and beans. But every once in a while an amazing thing happens, something that makes the residents of La Unión feel pretty special.
The skies, rain fish. It happens every year — at least once and often more, residents say — during the late spring and early summer. And only under specific conditions: a torrential downpour, thunder and lightning, conditions so intense that nobody dares to go outside.
Once the storm clears, the villagers grab buckets and baskets and head down the road to a sunken pasture where the ground will be covered in hundreds of small, silver-colored fish.
The lluvia de peces (lit. ‘rain of fish’), also known as aguacero de pescado (lit. ‘downpour of fish’), is a phenomenon that has been occurring yearly for more than a century in Yoro, Honduras, Most locals believe there is a religious reason rather than a scientific one behind this incident taking place in this small town. As per a theory, there was a Catholic priest who lived in Yoro from 1856 to 1864. When he saw people starving there, he offered prayers to God to provide sustenance to them, and at the end of his prayer session, this miracle happened. So as per this story, after the priest ended his prayer, a storm came, and fish started falling from the sky. And since that time, this animal rain has been happening every year in this small town.
The explanation generally offered for the rain of fish is meteorological, often speculated to be strong winds or waterspouts, as is commonly proposed when attempting to explain similar occurrences of raining animals. The nearest marine source for the fish is the Atlantic Ocean, about 120 miles away, though this explanation might be seen as unlikely due to the improbability of waterspouts collecting fish in the open sea every year in May or June and transporting them directly to Yoro.
Alternatively, the fish may have originated in fresh water and moved from a nearby river into a subterranean water current or cave system in response to seasonal changes. Subsequent heavy rains wash the fish up out of this habitat and the water recedes to leave the fish stranded.
- The U.S. Supreme Court has always been known as the “Highest Court of the Land,” but there’s one more court that sits even above the Supreme Court, literally—a basketball court.
Aptly named “The Highest Court in the Land”, the U.S Supreme Court’s basketball court sits on the fifth floor of the United States Supreme Court Building, which is much higher than the actual courtroom, which is located on the fourth floor.
The court was once a spare room to house journals, but sometime in the 1940s, it was converted into a workout area for courthouse workers. Wooden backboards and baskets were installed later, which led to the court’s current use as a basketball court used by clerks, off-duty police officers, and other supreme court employees.
A few notable names that have played in the smaller-than-regulation-sized court aren’t NBA stars, but Supreme Court Justices, such as Byron White and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. Sandra Day O’Connor also used the gym, but for women-only yoga classes, not b-ball. While not all employees are spry enough for basketball, many of them do use the full service gym and weight room, adjacent to the basketball court on the fourth floor. A few of the current justices themselves are known to lift weights during the day, as well! I’d like to imagine RBG dunking on Scalia at one point during their terms together.
- Drivers of London’s famous black cabs have long been held to high standards.
Those hoping to get behind the wheel of one of the most iconic taxis in the world have to pass a notoriously difficult test called “The Knowledge.”
The Knowledge is a series of tests which must be passed by all black cab drivers before they can get a licence to work in the capital. Black cabbies must study some 320 routes and 25,000 streets and get to know them all by heart. They also memorise roughly 20,000 landmarks and places of public interest, from tourist destinations to museums, parks, churches, theatres and schools. The process typically takes between two and four years to complete and has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain. Black cabbie hopefuls must then pass a written test and a series of oral exams before they can get their licence.
Unlike minicab drivers, black cabbies are not allowed to use satnavs or GPS to find their way around. Instead, they must know their way through the sprawling metropolis of 9million people completely by memory. The time and dedication needed to achieve this has made many black taxi drivers angry with what they see as a lack of regulation for their competitors.
- Once upon a time, the main danger associated with bicycling had nothing to do with being hit by a car. Instead, some late-19th-century doctors warned that — especially for women — using the newfangled contraption could lead to a terrifying medical condition: bicycle face.
“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face,'” noted the Literary Digest in 1895. It went on to describe the condition: “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.” Elsewhere, others said the condition was “characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes.”
In 1890s Europe and America, bicycles were seen by many as an instrument of feminism: they gave women a measure of increased mobility, began to redefine Victorian ideas about femininity, and were eagerly taken up by many women active in the suffrage movement. Bikes helped stoke dress reform movements, which aimed to reduce Victorian restrictions on clothes and undergarments so women could wear clothes that allowed them to engage in physical activities
As Munsey’s Magazine put it 1896: “To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”
All this triggered a backlash from many (male) doctors and onlookers, who cited all sorts of reasons to dissuade women from riding bikes. In general, they argued, bicycling was an excessively taxing activity, unsuitable for women. It would lead to not only bicycle face, but also exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, and depression.
The women who did ride faced a huge list of rules. Among the New York World’s 41 rules for female cyclists printed in 1895 were “Don’t refuse assistance up a hill” and “Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel toward the ground.”
Toward the end of the 1890s, though, many doctors began to publicly question the idea of bicycle face, noting that people concentrate when riding or driving any sort of vehicle without it causing lasting facial damage.
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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