Tuesday, September 16, 2014

900-1300: The Soporific Sponge

Physicians at the School of Salerno in the 15th century are believed to be the first to provide anesthetics during surgery.  The method used was to turn a simple sponge into an inhaler, what surgeons referred to as the "soporific sponge," according to historian Garrison Fielding Hudson. (1, page 142)

Hudson explains that "surgical sleeping draughts" are referred to as the "soporiphic sponge" as early as the 11th century in "the beautiful Jenson imprint of the Antidotarium of Nicholas of Salerna that was published in Venice in 1471.  (1, page 142)

This was a sponge that was "steeped in a mixture of opium, hyoscyamus, mulberry juice, lettuce, hemlock, mandragora and ivy, dried, and, when moistened, inhaled by the patient, who was subsequently awakened by applying fennel-juice to the nostrils." (1, page 142)

This "prescription" was believed to be derived from earlier treatments of "anodyne applications" used to treat insomnia at the temples of the Aesclepius by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Later on Mandragora became "preferable to opium and hemlock." (1, page 142)

Could you imagine the stress that a physician wanted to give you such a medicine in an age when it was still greatly feared to be operated on? This type of fear was noted in a poem in Marlowe's Jew of Malta: (3, page 143)
"I drank of poppy and cold mandrake juice. And being asleep, belike they thought me dead."
So the anesthetic may have been taken internally by some, yet it was due to this fear that the anesthetic was not taken "internally by Salernitan physicians." I think this was a wise decision, and this made the "Soporific Sponge" a wise alternative.

The"Soporific Sponge" is an early, yet primitive, example of one of the first uses of an inhaling device. It is for this reason I mention it here. 
It is also surmised that the Salerno medical community greatly influenced Arabic medicine.  Yet, ultimately, Arabic medicine would grow so that it superseded the old Greek traditions taught at Salerno, and this is believed to be what caused the fall of Salerno from its "high estate."  The School of Salerno met its demise sometime in the middle of the 13th century.(1, page 187)

  1. Garrison, Fielding Hudson, "An introduction to the history of medicine," 1922, Philadelphia, W.B. Saunders Company

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