John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 5

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: April 5


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Medicine

Isa_1:5-6

In the first chapter of Isaiah occurs this remarkable passage, in which the prophet symbolically expresses the corrupt condition of man’s nature—“Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head, there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.”

The external character of the diseases here employed to express a generally diseased condition, together with the entirely outward character of the remedies, tends to suggest some considerations respecting the practice of the Hebrews in regard to the treatment of diseases. This seems to have been in a very rude state, as it still is in the East, and to have been among there scarcely less distinguished from the ancient Egyptian and Greek practice, than from that of modern Europe. The Egyptians certainly had made great advances in medical knowledge; but it appears wrong to cite their knowledge in illustration of Scripture, unless in those places where Egyptian physicians and Egyptian remedies are expressly mentioned.

It appears, then, that among the Hebrews, as among all nations in the early stage of medical practice, attention was in a great degree confined to outward applications, and what we should now call surgical practice; and the present text is among those which show that, down to a comparatively late period, external maladies were the chief subjects of medical treatment among the Israelites. Perhaps this was partly founded upon the notion, still very prevalent in the East, that outward complaints were more within the reach of human skill, but that internal disorders, being inscrutable in their nature, must needs be left to the mercy of God.

But let us look to the text before us. The three words translated “wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores,” express well enough the distinction of terms convened in the original. The first signifies an open wound, or cut from which the blood flows. The word rendered “bruises,” denotes a contusion, or the effect of a blow where the skin is not broken—in short, such a contusion as produces swelling and discoloration. And by the term translated “putrefying sores,” is rather to be understood recent or fresh wounds, or perhaps a running wound, which continues fresh and open, and cannot be cicatrized or dried up. The prophet’s images all refer to the surgical treatment of these wounds, without any allusion to the internal remedies which, in modern practice, always accompany surgical treatment. Here the neglect of all proper means of healing is simply expressed by the wounds not having been “closed,”—that is, the lips of the wound had not been pressed together to remove the blood, etc. from the wound, that cohesion might the sooner take place. There was, and is, no sewing up of wounds in the East; and hence the edges, healing without being perfectly united, make the scar of a wound more conspicuous and disfiguring than with us. The only attempt to produce cohesion is by “binding up” the wound, after the edges have been as far as possible “closed” by simple pressure. The binding up, however, seems to apply to all these maladies; as does also, perhaps, the “mollifying with ointment;” by which rather understand “oil,”—that is, olive oil, which is frequently in Scripture mentioned as thus employed; and at the present day in Syria, a mixture of oil and melted grease is much used for the healing of wounds.

The nature of the maladies chiefly brought under consideration, suggests just the kind of remedies which we find specified in Scripture, such as oils, salves, particularly balms, plasters, and poultices—to which we may add, from Josephus, oil and mineral baths.

The mention of “physicians,” in some texts of later Scripture, is somewhat apt to mislead the uninquiring, who do not reflect that this was the general term for those who professed the healing art in ancient times, whether by external or internal applications—the professions of the physician and the surgeon not being distinguished as with us in modern times. Nevertheless, it is clear that physicians were in later times more frequently consulted than of old; and it is certain that even at an earlier date remedies for internal, or even mental disorders, were not altogether wanting; Note: 2Ch_16:12; 1Sa_16:16. but it does not appear that much progress was ever attained in this branch of the healing art. Indeed, from the information we can gather from the Talmud, and other old Jewish writings, it would appear that their practice was of a very simple character, and such as our old herbalists might have been disposed to recommend. These intimations mostly occur in the indications of things that may or may not be done on the Sabbath-day—thus: “It is unlawful to eat Greek hyssop on the Sabbath, because it is not food fit for healthy persons; but a man may eat wild rosemary, and drink bloom of the herbs; Note: Some plant used as an antidote against pernicious liquors. a man may eat any kind of food as medicine, and drink any kind of beverage, except water of trees, Note: Meaning water from a spring between two trees, the first draught of which was believed to promote digestion, the second to be laxative, and the third an emetic. and of cos ikkarim, Note: A mucilage of pulverized herbs and gum in wine. as these are only remedies for the jaundice; but a man may drink the water of trees for thirst; and may anoint himself with the oil of ikkarim, but not as a remedy. He who has the toothache must not rinse his mouth with vinegar; but he may wash the teeth as usual, and if he gets cured, he does get cured. He who has pains in the loins must not rub them with wine or vinegar; he may, however, anoint them with any kind of oil except rose-oil. Princes may anoint (dress) their wounds with rose-oil, as they are in the habit of anointing themselves with it on other days.”

Amulets were also, it seems, nearly as much in use among the Jews as they are still among the modern Orientals. Their character may be shown from the Talmud. “It is permitted (even on the Sabbath) to go out with the egg of a grasshopper, or the tooth of a fox, or the nail of one who has been hanged, as medicinal remedies.” It appears, however, that strict persons discouraged such practices as belonging to “the ways of the Amorites.”

A few details of modern practice in the same country may indicate the correspondence of facts to which we have more than once referred. There is no medical education, properly so called, in Syria; and any one who likes is quite at liberty, at any time, to forsake any less noble calling for the healing art. Any individual, high or low, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, may set up as a practitioner at any moment. Almost innumerable are the cases in which poor tradesmen, mechanics, and farmers, suddenly conceiving the idea of practicing medicine, buy a lancet, or grind an old knife-blade into the shape of one, and give themselves out as doctors; and, strange to say, all of them find more or less encouragement. Incapacity to read or write, forms no impediment to becoming a physician, and we find many of these vain pretenders going about bleeding and administering medicines, from simple colored water to powerful elaterium.

The ideas of even the best informed physicians are a strange mixture of fancies and absurdities. Persons laboring under fever are carefully deprived of cooling drinks; but animal broths, jellies, sweetmeats, walnuts, hazel-nuts, almonds, and such like articles, are freely allowed. Pomegranates and raw quinces are considered as highly beneficial in such cases, and are much sought after. Note: Quinces are hawked about the streets with the following cry: “Cure your sick one—quinces.” Our physicians check the disposition of the patient to eat; but the Syrian physician holds that if the patient does not eat, he must certainly die; and so various stews, jellies, soups, and mixtures of animal and vegetable food are prepared, in order to induce a loathing stomach to take something nourishing; while, at the same time, unirritating articles of diet, such as sago, arrow-root, gruels, and other farinaceous preparations, are utterly unknown.

Very few of the physicians have the slightest idea of the true anatomical structure of the human frame; and from this the most serious mistakes result as to the seat and nature of internal disorders. The only difference known between arteries and veins is that the former pulsate and the latter do not. There is, in fact, a superstitious horror in regard to mutilating the dead, which opposes an insurmountable obstacle to the dissections and post-mortem examinations; through which only an adequate knowledge of anatomy and of the nature of diseases can be acquired. Neither does it appear that the Hebrews were in the habit of opening dead bodies to ascertain the cause of death, though we know that the Egyptians were so, and that their practice of embalmment must have given them much anatomical knowledge. Some traces of such knowledge may, however, be found in Job_10:10-11, and some other passages.

The ancient confidence in charms and amulets is not at all diminished in the present age. Women and children have usually a blue bead or other ornament suspended over the forehead, just at the parting of the hair, or a string of blue beads about the neck, to ward off the effects of the evil-eye. Horses, cows, and other domestic animals, have also frequently a blue bead, or a small piece of notched wood; and even fruit-trees and vines are often daubed with a streak of blue as a safeguard against the same evil influence. Among other ridiculous notions, it is held that the windpipe of a wolf will infallibly cure the mumps if hung around the patient’s neck. The greatest reliance is, however, placed on written charm. A large majority of all classes and ages have usually some paper, or image, or relic about the person, which confers many imaginary benefits and averts many evils; and during illness carious charms of this nature are employed, both by patient and physician, in order to enhance the effect of the remedies used.

It is a doctrine strenuously maintained by the physicians, and implicitly received by all classes, that catarrhal and pulmonary complaints are contagious. Hence, no one will smoke of the same pipe (otherwise usual in the East), or drink from the same vessel, with one laboring under a cold, for fear of catching it. Small-pox is believed to be communicated by a glance of the eye, and, consequently, persons affected by it are secluded from view as carefully as possible.

Of chemistry, Syro-Arabic science is wholly ignorant. A few of the most common mineral substances are, however, used in medicine; but by far the greater part of the remedies employed are drawn from the vegetable kingdom. Yet botany, as a science, is as little known as chemistry. Plants are known only by names, not by descriptions; and, as names vary with localities, much uncertainty and confusion arise from this source.

Bleeding is employed on nearly all occasions with a freedom and recklessness which would appall a European surgeon. This is even done when no disorder calls for it; but under the view of its being a beneficial relief to the system. We have known cases of native gentlemen bled periodically by their own servants, without the intervention of any medical practitioner. Scarification with a razor is much used in all cases of tumors; and cupping is sometimes practised after a rude fashion. But burning by actual cautery is almost as frequent as bleeding. It is performed with a common iron nail, or a piece of wire, or a piece of lighted touchwood is laid upon the part and suffered to burn out. It is resorted to for the most trifling complaints, and scarcely in individual can be found who has not a lesser or greater number of cicatrices from this cause.

The connection between barbers and surgeons in the East is not yet altogether dissolved; and the members of that which is, with us, a decayed profession, still bleed, leech, cauterize, draw teeth, and perform sundry other operations connected with the chirurgical art. Physicians, so called, confine themselves to the practice of medicine; but those who pass for surgeons act in either capacity pro re natâ. The natives have, however, a superstitious dread of all surgical operations, especially such as mutilate the body, and often prefer death to undergoing them. Hence, it is rare to see in the East a man who has lost a leg or arm. The accident or malady, which with us involves no greater loss, is death to an Oriental.