Tuesday, July 02, 2013

502-575? A.D.: Aetius uses a painful asthma remedy

Teddy Roosevelt once said he'd rather get rid of all his asthma medicines because most seem to make him feel worse.  Perhaps there is no better example of this than a remedy proposed by an ancient physician named Aetius.

He was born a Christian in Amida in Mesopotamia, was educated at the school of Alexandria, and practiced in Constantinople near the end of the 5th century or beginning of the 6th.   He was another of those famous physician who recopied the works of all the ancient physicians who came before him, mainly Hippocrates and Galen.  His works voluminous works were published in Tetrabibles. (1, page 65 and 2, page 3)

He believed in many of the ideas of both the Humoralists and Methodists, and he added in some ideas based on his own observations. He described smallpox, fevers, and he attributed "'ringing in the ears' to the oscillations of the pneuma, or vaporous spirits, in the interior of the organ of hearing." (1, page 66)

Of interest of us is to note he "made frequent use of both the actual and potential cautery -- such indeed a few surgeons would advise, and still fewer patients be willing to endure it in our day."  (1, page 66)

So what about his remedies?  Like many of his predecessors he based many of his remedies on "incredulity and superstitious practices."  Some of which include amulets, charms and incantations.

But what is his remedy for asthma?  Yes, and that's what I'm getting to.  Note above that I mentioned he made bold use of the cautery.  Yes, that means, as is noted at the Freedictionary.com : "An agent or instrument used to destroy abnormal tissue by burning, searing, or scarring."

He believed cautery was a good remedy when the disease was "incurable or among the most difficult to treat."  And it's for this reason, perhaps, he believed it was a viable remedy for asthma, pthisis (tuberculosis) and empyema (inflammation of pulmonary sac).  As noted by V.J. Fourgeaud:
"In Chronic asthma, in phthisis pulmonalis and in empyema, he applied two cauteries on the upper part of the chest near the articulation of the clavicle with the sternum, taking care not to injure the trachea; two smaller ones beneath the under jaw, near the carotid arteries, one at each side, being careful to prevent them from penetrating more than skin-deep; two more below the breasts, between the third and fourth ribs; two on the back, near the fifth and sixth ribs; one a little above the xiphoid cartilage; two between the eighth and ninth ribs, and three along the course of the spine, one in the centre and one on each side.  A circular form for the eschars, is recommended by him, as tending to protract their healing, and he makes his prognosis of the recovery or death of the patient depend on the quantity of humors furnished by the suppuration which ensued." (2, page 67)
Um, no thanks!  What do you think?

  1. Fourgeaud, V.J, "Historical Sketches:  XL  Medicine from the time of Galen to the Arabic Period," Medical and Surgical Journal, edited by V.J. Fouregaud and J.F. Morse, Volume VII, 1964, San Francisco, pages 60-72
  2. Wilkes, John, editor, "Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or, Universal dictionary of arts, sciences, and literature, volume 1,  1810, London

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