Tag Archives: A Short History of Medicine

Planet Doug

You are free to imagine anything you like about an imaginary world. A former philosophy professor of mine – a man with a Tennessee drawl and a permanent smirk – liked to pick on one of my fellow students for purposes of illustration. This student he nicknamed ‘Planet Doug’ and all kinds of unlikely things were posited about him: that he was composed entirely of methane; that he orbited a giant ham sandwich; that he played host to life forms all of which resembled Harpo Marx.

It seems to me that the old notion that “every man is a microcosm, and carries the whole world about him” (in Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase) began to lose its vogue around the time that the actual globe, by conquest, exploration and trade, became more of a known quantity. I’m not sure why this should be the case, but maybe we only liked to think of ourselves as little worlds when the comparison suggested something mysterious and exciting.

It’s probably no coincidence that the shores and mountains of distant continents gave themselves up to the indignity of being named and described at the same time as the components of our physical bodies. Just as their gold and fame-hungry contemporaries were crossing seas to pin their names to various islands and territories, surgeons and doctors of the Renaissance were claiming rights of discovery to our internal organs.

F. Gonzalez-Crussi identifies a number of these inward provinces in A Short History of Medicine. The Fallopian tube, for example, was named for Gabriel Fallopius (1523-1562), and the Eustachian tube for Bartolomeo Eustachio (1520-1574). These two are well-known, the Columbuses of human anatomy. Less familiar is Johann Georg Wirsung (1589-1643) who discovered Wirsung’s duct, the “execretory duct of the pancreas,” or Adriaan van den Spieghel (1578-1625) who first described Spieghel’s lobe, “the quadrate lobe of the liver.” Glisson’s capsule, another part of the liver, was named for Francis Glisson (1597-1677).

The Sylvian fissue (“the deep cleft that separates the temporal lobe of the brain from the frontal and parietal lobes above it”) is named for Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672). The Graafian follicle, near the surface of the ovary, is named for Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673). Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) gets credit for discovering Haller’s ring, a tiny circle of blood vessels in the eye. Jakob Henle (1809-1885), who thrived at the close of the era, is responsible for Henle’s loop, which Golzalez-Crussi informs us is “a part of the renal tubules.”

If you, like me, never suspected that you owned any renal tubules, you do. Take up a magnifying glass to examine them and you will find a corner labeled with Henle’s name, quite legibly. I’m afraid that’s the way things are nowadays. You may pine for auld lang syne when people were pleased to think of themselves as rather mysterious microcosms of a rather mysterious Macrocosmos, but those days are over with. What you thought were your own undiscovered, dragon-haunted hinterlands have already been visited and claimed by others.

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Marginalia, no.286

When Vesalius demonstrated that the head of the human femur is not flared, stating that the ancient Greek master had used a quadruped’s hip for his descriptions, his opponents responded that Galen had not lied and, if the human hip did not conform to his description, it was because men’s anatomy had changed. This, they claimed, was due to centuries of wearing tight trousers instead of loose-fitting tunics and togas, as the ancients had done.

~ F. Gonzalez-Crussi, A Short History of Medicine

Mr. Poe may well sigh for “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” I see it too, as, from barbarian regions of tight trousers, the weary, way-worn wanderer returns to his own native shore, and to dear Helen’s hyacinthine something-or-other. Surely, at such a moment, not even the Nicean barking of the neighbor’s dog in the filth-ridden alley below can spoil the consolation of having preserved a flared femur. Thank the gods for superior-quality traveling togas.

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