Tuesday, July 17, 2012

1501-76: Cardano finds new remedy for asthma?

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576)
It was sort of by chance that our next subject enters our history of asthma.  His name was Gerolamo Cardano, and he's often given credit as the first to suspect asthma was a reaction to substances in the air around us, and the best remedy is avoidance of such substances.  

The story goes that he was born illegitimately in 1501 to a lawyer who taught him mathematics.  He was a brilliant child, and highly critical, so he was not well liked.  Realizing he had a mental advantage over others he became consumed by the gambling bug.  These vices would plague him his entire life.

Yet while a vice of his own making, his gambling worked to the advantage of everyone as this is what lead him to devising his rules of probability, which ultimately lead him to becoming one of the founders of that field.

In 1524 he used this newly obtained wisdom to write a book called "Liber de ludo aleae" which translates into "Book on games of chance."  Yet this book would not be published until 1663.

He earned his medical degree in 1525 and set up a small practice that didn't take off mainly due to his reputation.  So he returned to gambling, and it got so bad that he had to barter off his wife's jewelry and some furniture.  (1)

Cardano wrote over 130 books
Eventually he was able to get a job teaching math in Milan that afforded him free time to get his practice going.  After curing a few patients his reputation improved and he was admitted into the College of Physicians in 1539.   (2)

This was when his writing career took off.  He published books on mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, theology and mathematics.   He became famous for his ability to create and solve equations.  His most famous book was an algebra book published in 1545 called "Ars Magna." (3)  

He became professor of medicine at Pravia University and became rich and even more famous.  In his quest to study asthma, and develop his own remedies, he took up the task of reading Maimonides Treaties on Asthma.  It was about this time, in 1552, he was summoned by one of the richest and most famous men in the world to solve a stubborn case of the asthma.

John Hamilton was the Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Andrews and a member of a famous family in Scotland, and he was struck with a pretty bad case of asthma.  His doctor believed his asthma was caused because his brain was cold and this caused phlegm to build up in the chest, yet Hamilton's asthma did not get better by any of his "warming" therapies, such as making rooms hot and smoky. (4)

Cardano in 1553
Desperate for a remedy, Hamilton summoned Cardano who immediately accepted the invitation.  After examining Hamilton's habits for six weeks Cardano decided Hamilton's asthma was caused by too much heat and not too much cold.  His asthma, thus, was caused by a life of luxury and venery. (5))

Cardanos remedies were designed to cool the body:
  1. A simple life
  2. Cold water to the head followed by cold water showers
  3. Inhalations of elaterium
  4. Aplications of an ointment of tar, mustard, euphorbium (derived from herb sometimes called 'asthma weed', honey, of anthardus, and blister-fly to the skull
  5. NO FEATHERS IN HIS PILLOW (silk, straw and seaweed instead)
  6. No fires in the fireplace (6)
Hamilton's health almost immediately improved.  Cardano was paid heavily for his cure, not just in finances but by improved fame. He published his remedies in his book "Consilia," which is a report on individual cases and the treatments that worked.

Many writers have given him credit as the first to recognize allergens and to suspect that allergen avoidance will prevent asthma. 

Yet not so fast.  The truth is Cardano might simply have been lucky.  You see, he, like many physicians -- including Hamilton's former physician -- believed diseases were caused by an imbalance of the four humors.  

Yet not so fast.  Cardano didn't so much believe that fires and smoke caused asthma, and removing the asthmatic from such "asthma triggers" would cure the asthma.  He merely recommended these things because he believed they produced heat.  

Ars Magna
So while his remedies may have helped cure Hamilton, and probably many asthmatics in the days thereafter, it wasn't because he thought feathers and smoke were causing it.  He, in essence, was the benefactor of a little good fortune.

Yet Cardano's good fortune would end.  His daughter died of syphilis after years of selling herself as a prostitute, although her death spearheaded one of the earliest ever books on the condition.

His eldest of four sons was convicted of poisoning his wife and this son was beheaded in 1560.  Another son was a gambler.  Cardano was now the father of a killer, and he became a hated man.  He was relieved of his post as professor of medicine at Privia.  

To make matters worse he was convicted of heresy for casting the horoscope of Jesus, and spent time in jail for that.   He bequested the help of Hamilton to get him off the hook, and Hamilton was able to convince authorities to release the physician.  Yet Hamilton himself was soon therafter hanged.

Throughout his colorful life he wrote over 130 books.  And while he's remembered mainly for his accomplishments in algebra, the story of how he cured the archbishop of his asthma is one we asthmatics most cherish.

He later admitted himself he lost a lot of time and accomplishments by his gambling, which included chess and poker.  He passed away in 1576 with 100 books left unfinished. In his will dated 1566 his advice to his eldest son's boy Fazio was to avoid gambling.  

  1.  http://www2.stetson.edu/~efriedma/periodictable/html/Cd.html
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. Jackson, mark, "Asthma: The Biography," 2006, New York
  5. ibid
  6. ibid

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