Friday, January 31, 2014

Quack! Quack!

A while back, I was presenting a lecture at the Orlando Public Library and I’d arrived early, so that I had time to peruse their used book store. On that particular day, I unearthed a gem: Doctors of the Old West, published in 1967 by Bonanza Books. To me, the only thing more fascinating than medicine is outdated medicine, so I plunked down on a stool and tore into it.

The author, a Mr. Robert F. Karolevitz, sets the stage with an exposé on Native American medicine, which he describes in all its gory detail (he provides no references, so you have to wonder if these aren’t simply urban legends).  He opens with a juicy anecdote:

            With permission of his tribal chief, the Apache medicine man placed the two babies back-to-back, and with a single bullet, killed both of them.
What an icebreaker. Bob goes on to explain that the infants were dying of smallpox anyway, and that by killing both infants with one shot, the shaman would only be credited with one death. How economical.

To his credit, Mr. Karolevitz does expound on the many natural remedies utilized by the “gourd-rattling incanters,” as he so graciously refers to them, and credit is certainly due. 

Native Americans had extensive knowledge of their natural world and relied on herbal remedies to treat their ill and injured. Grape and elderberry were blended into tonics; poultices of skunk cabbage and honeysuckle vine were applied to sores; and teas from a number of plants, such as sagebrush and willow, were used for diarrhea and upset stomachs. Since plants represent the earliest forms of medicine, going back over five thousand years in China, it’s no wonder the Indians were working wonders with weeds.
Robert then describes the miraculous changes that took place once “civilized” medicine arrived on the frontier (his quotations, not mine). This so-called civilized medicine showed up just in time to treat the natives still struggling against the onslaught of diseases toted aboard the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, along with other pestilence-ridden ships from Europe. 

But our civilized medicine has boasted quite a few “gourd-rattling incanters” of its own. They may not have literally shaken gourds, but they might as well have, for some of their early remedies certainly didn’t do anything for the patient (aside from expediting death).
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “quackery” as “the methods and treatments used by unskillful doctors or people who pretend to be doctors.” And these so-called “quacks” have a long and colorful history. Let’s take a look.

One form of quackery that became part of pioneer life in America were the “snake oil” salesmen, the most famous being Clark Stanley. Mr. Stanley, aka, “The Rattlesnake King,” drew large crowds by throttling rattlesnakes while he pitched his “medicine,” which was supposed to heal everything from toothaches to broken bones. Stanley’s potion, like so many concoctions being sold across the country, wasn’t medicine at all. His snake oil turned out to be mineral oil mixed with a bit of beef fat. A dash of turpentine gave it that authentic “mediciny” flavor. Ironically, when Clark was forced to fess up, he tried shifting the blame, attributing his potion to an Indian medicine man. Quack!

Another form of quackery relied on the shape of one’s head. Dr. Joseph Gall believed that a person’s moral and intellectual abilities were based on the size and shape of his brain. Since the skull conforms to the brain, he believed trained practitioners could simply “decode” one’s personality by translating the bumps on the skull. Dr. Gall demonstrated his technique, known in professional circles as phrenology, by identifying certain nodules on the heads of criminals. He also identified bumps associated with courage, cleverness, and murderous instincts. Soon, phrenology parlors were cropping up all over town, where one could go to have his head read and his personality deciphered. I wonder if Gall ever identified a bullshit bump?
Quack! Quack!

But the most outrageous and “ballsy” form of quackery goes to Dr. John Brinkley, who wasn’t really a doctor, but paid five hundred bucks for a fake diploma before launching the most preposterous transplant scheme in the history of medicine. 

When a male patient of his complained about a lack of sex drive, the good doctor came up with the perfect solution. Brinkley's previous position as house doctor at the Swift meatpacking company had exposed him to the enthusiastic mating activities of goats, so it made perfect sense to implant those hypersexual goat testicles into his flaccid patient. The new-and-improved patient was able to miraculously impregnate his wife, and before Brinkley knew it, business was booming. Alas, after performing over sixteen thousand testicular transplants, his medical “license” was revoked. He did, however, die a very wealthy man.
Quack! Quack! Quack!
Even in this day of modern medicine, quackery still abounds, and the Internet provides a most expedient means of spreading it far and wide. So beware of anyone claiming to reverse the aging process, cure your baldness, or magically grow your penis. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Here's my article from Archaeology Magazine, examining evidence for medicine among the Archaic people from Windover. There's an expanded chapter in my book, Life and Death at Windover: Excavations of a 7,000-year-old Pond Cemetery.

And here's a fun read on some of the famous quacks of our time. The goat-loving Brinkley is included!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Fecal Foes

Here’s a question: When you flush your toilet, what goes through your mind? Do you ever think about the destination of your deposit? Ever marvel at the human ingenuity that makes your excrement magically disappear?
I do, especially when I stay in a large hotel. I think about all those rooms, with all those toilets, filled with all that poo, all flushing into some mystical repository. It boggles my mind.

Those of us in the developed world take sanitation for granted. We seldom think about the days of yore, when sewage ran in the streets and turds abounded in our waterways. Yes, those were the days…
The sanitation conundrum grew in concert with social complexity. As populations grew, so did issues of waste removal. As people clustered in towns and cities, they could no longer rely on the simple measures of times past (squatting in the woods or digging a latrine). Imagine, for a moment, your neighborhood, minus the sewer system… pretty scary, huh?

Cesspools were the earliest form of repositories. They could be small (underneath a house) or large (serving sections of a town or city) and merely served as dumping grounds (no pun intended) for routed waste. But over time, they would fill up, leak into nearby wells, and emit rather foul odors. The waste needed to be channeled; preferably someplace far, far away.
The Romans were pioneers when it came to sewers. As their cities grew, the age-old practice of tossing your waste into the streets became obsolete. So around two thousand years ago, they devised their first sewers. These sewers serviced public baths and latrines where folks would gather to bathe and poo (or preferably, poo and then bathe). Water flowed in channels underneath the latrines, swishing waste away from the city and (unfortunately) into nearby rivers.

Londoners followed suit, although much later in history. By the 1800s, overflowing cesspools became such a problem that it was decreed lawful to empty them into the nearby Thames (despite the fact that it served as the major source of drinking water). But it took an unusually steamy summer in 1858 for Queen Victoria to take action. The “Great Stink,” as it so fondly became known, was just the impetus for the construction of a new sewer system. The Queen even constructed an underground railway from which an excited public could cheer as they dedicated their new sewer.
Cities around the world latched on to the new craze of poo-free streets. Parisians are so proud of their early system that they have a museum honoring its glorious and malodorous history.

Not only was sanitation a matter of simple decency, it was also a major health issue. Some of our scariest diseases depend on the “fecal train” for delivery to their next victim. And the worst scenario is when our mouths serve as depot. The “oral-fecal” route is the common mode of transport for many pathogens. If you think you aren’t susceptible, think how many times you put your hands to your mouth throughout the course of the day. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be your feces. All it takes is that gloveless cook forgetting to wash his hands before constructing your mouth-watering burger for the fecal train to unload its cargo.
And the list of potential pathogens is long and frightening: hepatitis (the A and E varieties), typhoid, and cholera, not to mention shigellosis, certain viruses (rota- and entero-), and our good friend, E. coli. And don’t think contaminated food or a dirty handshake is the only way these critters make it into our mouths.

Keep in mind there are several sexual practices that may bring you face-to-face (literally) with feces. Anal sex is an obvious method. Once you go this route, be sure to switch the condom before switching to oral. Another culprit is anilingus – commonly referred to as “rimming.” Without getting graphic, I’ll simply describe it as “involving the tongue and anus.” You’ll have to use your imagination. And possibly the most at-risk individuals are those rare “coprophiliacs.” Yes, there are individuals out there who actually get sexually aroused by poo (and a band that sports the name, to boot!). Whatever floats your boat…
So although you may not give it a second thought, flushing your toilet should be accompanied by Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus. It is truly a wonder of human ingenuity that, when functioning properly, keeps us safe from scads of nasty bugs.

According to the World Health Organization, by 2015 there will be about 2.7 billion people without access to basic sanitation.

Those of us with toilets are certainly the lucky ones.

Related Posts:
September's From Oral to Anal...
July's The Unseen
June's Critters and Contagion

Have a great week and I'll see you next Friday!

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Condoms

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… Thus, Dickens sets the stage for our history of that most essential intercourse accessory: the condom.
The history of the condom forms a dual narrative, one divided by Charles Goodyear’s 1839 discovery. His ingenuity would transform the condom from primitive to proficient by creating a material with endless application: latex.

But I've gotten ahead of my story. Let us go back in time to a simpler era, when men were men and sheep were afraid.
No one really knows exactly when or where the condom was first invented, but it pops up (forgive the pun) throughout history in many parts of the world. A cave painting dating to over seventeen thousand years ago shows a man with a sheathed penis, but you boys have been adorning your members for millennia. I’m curious whether it’s truly a prophylactic or simply a kitschy decoration, since penile décor shows up in literature throughout the ancient world. Sheaths were also worn for protection in battle (ouch!), to prevent insect bites (yikes!), or to ward off evil spirits (boo!).They could represent rank or be decorations to promote fertility, since nothing says romance like a bedazzled Johnson.

The earliest description of the condom was by anatomist Gabriello Fallopio (of Fallopian tube fame) in 1564. The actual word “condom” first appears in a 1706 poem, but its origin remains elusive. And just as men have concocted numerous names for their organs, condoms also sport a range of appellations. 

Germans refer to them as "Fromms," after the manufacturer who sold over fifty million a year before abandoning his factory to flee the Nazis. Our friends in Germany also use the term “naughty bags,” when the mood strikes them (I can just imagine Hitler requesting one…). Other names include “bullet proof vest” (Hong Kong), “safety tool” (Hungary), and “penis hat” (Nigeria). Ironically, the French and English have assigned each other’s names to their condoms – the English call them “French letters” while the French repay the favor with “English caps.” Perhaps the terms are meant to imply that, should you shun protection, you’ll end up like those “other” guys with a raging case of syphilis.
In the pre-latex world, men had to be creative in their choice of materials. Bladders and membranes from sheep and goats were the common choice. Even into the 1700s, condom makers would partner with local butchers, buying up innards that would be cleaned, cured with sulfur, dried, and then molded into shape. The resulting products were nothing like their modern counterparts. They were expensive, many contained holes and, worst of all, they were reusable! That’s enough to drive even a randy pubescent to abstinence…

Salve-coated cloth was also used and these little bonnets were secured to the penis by a piece of string. The more daring shunned the full sheath and simply wore a small “skull cap,” although I can’t imagine how they kept those little guys on without cutting off blood flow.
But in 1839, the curious Charles Goodyear stumbled onto the discovery of vulcanized rubber and the era of latex was born. His crafty chemistry used sulfur and lead oxide to alter rubber’s molecular bonds, making it stronger and more elastic than its natural counterpart. Latex would transform condom construction and not only prevent a slew of unwanted pregnancies, but also revolutionize the fight against STDs.

Today, there are basically two types of condoms: latex and lambskin. According to the FDA, always choose latex, since lambskin (aka, natural) condoms may not protect against HIV, hepatitis, or the herpes viruses. According to the CDC, studies have shown that latex condoms "provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the  size of STD pathogens" and their use has dramatically reduced incidences of HIV in places like Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. If the package doesn’t say, “For the prevention of sexually transmitted disease,” keep shopping!
Alas, some folks aren’t interested in disease prevention when choosing their condoms. There are a whole slew of novelty condoms on the market for those seeking a kinky way to amuse their partner. Some of them even light up and play music! With all that stimulation, you may not even need a partner…

So the next time you or your partner glove up, think about the history and invention that went into that little rubber sheath and just be glad the days of goat bladders are behind us.
Be safe!
 Further reading... Click on the link to download the PDF!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Killer Culture

Two weeks ago, we discussed the advantage of a bigger brain (December’s Bigheads). Despite the fact that it comes with a few drawbacks like getting stuck in the birth canal and consuming a large chunk of our energy, it enables us to do some pretty amazing things. And as our giant melons evolved, they ushered in one of our most fundamental aspects of humanness: culture.
Culture, in its most simplistic definition, is a suite of behaviors that are transmitted within a population. In reality, culture defines us: the things we believe, the technology we use, the social customs we follow, even the way we behave. All these things are guided, if not dictated, by the culture in which we live.

The best way to appreciate your culture is to venture into someone else’s. I’ve had the good fortune of working and studying abroad, and the experience of living in a different culture, even for just a few weeks, makes you appreciate just how culture-bound we humans are. I trained in London and even the Brits, who are culturally very similar to us, have their own odd customs (they sure are fond of the word “toilet”). Then again, I’m sure many aspects of Americana send them reeling.

The development of culture has allowed us entry into some of the most inhospitable climates on earth. Clothing and technology keep us warm as we scale Everest, cool as we traverse the Gobi, and enable us to exploit just about any ecosystem on the planet. But just like the drawbacks of having a big brain, culture has a way of biting back. Let’s take a peek at a few of the ways culture kills.

Cooking revolutionized how and what we eat. It made foods more nutritious and more palatable, and allowed us to redirect energy once used for digestion to fuel our big brains. But humans aren’t programmed to live in a world of perpetual abundance. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors would stock up when good fortune befell them – say the taking down of a juicy mastodon – but our bodies are ill-equipped for round-the-clock takeout and all-you-can-eat buffets. The result: dramatic rates of obesity plaguing much of the developed world.
Our methods of cooking also cause problems. What began with roasting meat and veggies over an open fire has morphed into calorie-laden, artery-clogging techniques that transform our food into delicious but deadly morsels. Is there anything finer than a warm donut, fresh from the fryer? Or a succulent piece of fried chicken accompanied by a heaping pile of mac and cheese? (Pause while I wipe the drool from my computer). Human ingenuity has come up with some pretty devastating methods of food preparation that, I admit, make for some scrumptious delights, but that take a radical toll on our health.

Transportation also plays a pivotal role in our culture and has transformed the capacity and expediency of travel. Plaines, trains, and automobiles, not to mention boats, ships, and rockets, enable us to go farther faster than ever before. But these people-movers are also people-killers. According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, 2011 saw some twenty-six thousand people die in vehicular crashes. The good news: deaths have trended downward since 1990, I’m guessing due to stricter seatbelt and drunk-driving laws.
Transportation via the skies enables us to hop from continent to continent, but if you’re unlucky enough to be on a jet that plunges to earth, your chances are pretty slim. In 2012, there were a total of twenty-three commercial airline crashes, killing 475 people. And this doesn’t include all the smaller crafts that fell from the sky. Fortunately, developments in technology, such as navigation, early warning, and weather prediction, have improved the safety of air travel, making 2012 the safest year on record since 1945.

Sports have been a part of culture going back millennia. Whether it’s the naked gladiators of Rome, thrashing it out on the sawdust floor of the Coliseum or the ancient Maya playing ball in the jungles of Central America, sports are fundamental to human nature and stir something primal within. But they also take a toll in the form of sports-related deaths. Traumatic injuries from high speed crashes, head injuries from contact sports, and full-body splats by sky divers are just a sampling of the many ways humans die for their sports. And still we play on.

And finally, that most deadly aspect of culture: war. Battles fought over religion, politics, and ethnicity are basically culture wars magnified to horrific scales. And as long as there has been culture, there has been conflict.
So just as parts of our anatomy are trade-offs, culture also comes at a price. It is a powerful tool that can enhance and prolong life, but it can also cause us to behave in ways that are counterintuitive to staying alive. Fortunately, for every drawback, every deadly action, there can be a cultural reaction. Peace accords, safety technology, and education are just a few of the ways culture compensates for our lack of tolerance, judgment, and compassion. We just have to keep prodding it in the right direction.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Hairy Beasts

Over a quiet cup of coffee the other morning, I got to thinking about naked men (happens more often than I care to admit). It occurred to me that, throughout my lifetime, I’ve seen more than my share of naked males. I’m not talking the Internet or magazines, I’m talkin’ live nudes.
I attribute my exposure (or should I say, theirs) to two things: first, my thirteen years as a medic; second, lifestyle.

As a paramedic working some of Orlando’s less reputable neighborhoods, I encountered a lot of trauma. Shootings and stabbings were regular occurrences and the first rule of trauma care: expose the wound. When you’re dealing with multisystem trauma – say a bullet-riddled drug dealer – your first step is to strip 'em down. Paramedics are wizards with scissors, and since the majority of my trauma victims were males, I gazed upon many a naked dude.
As for my lifestyle… an irrational fear of commitment has caused me to skirt marriage most of my life, thus I’ve had the freedom to do a bit of comparison shopping. And what I’ve found is the male body not only comes in a vast array of shapes and sizes, it also presents an infinite range of hairiness. Let’s discuss.

Why do we have body hair in the first place?

If we were reptiles, we’d be decked out in scales, dermal plates, or leathery skin. However, we are mammals, aka, hairy milk producers (December’s Breasts for Hire). Mammals use body hair as a form of insulation. Although we appear to have much less hair than our fellow primates, it’s really an illusion. We have about the same amount as apes (about a million hairs, give or take), only ours are much finer. Research suggests human hair was minimized via natural selection to avoid parasites (fleas, lice, and ticks, to name a few). Sexual selection may have also played a role, with less hairy individuals being preferred over their furry counterparts.

Hair forms within specialized follicles of the epidermis (August’s Skin Deep). As new cells are produced within the follicle, older cells die and are pushed out. The cells harden as they exit and blend with a protein called keratin. The result? A strand of hair. Scientists are still teasing apart the genetics that control hair characteristics, but texture and thickness depends on the size of the follicles and the density of the shaft. Who knew dermatology could sound so sexy?
Men have hair in the strangest of places. I’d never imagined noses and ears could sprout such foliage. Although those hairs serve a purpose - filtering out dust and particles - as men age, changes in hormones promote unwanted hair growth. Recommendation: invest in a nice set of clippers.

And what about chest hair? Some women love it and like nothing more than to run their fingers through a heavy mat. Chest hair, like pubic hair, is part of the testosterone-driven body changes that accompany puberty (September’s A Natural History of the Penis). Perhaps a hairy chest merely gives the female something to hang on to. Kinda’ like a horse’s mane.
And speaking of pubic hair… there’s been much debate over why we have it. Science suggests pubic hair, like underarm hair, is for trapping pheromones. Pheromones, which appear to play a role in sexual attraction, are released by the body and blend with bacteria decomposed by secretions from your sebaceous glands. Each person produces their own aroma, based on their MHC (major histocompatibility complex, which plays a role in immune response). This heady mix of odors can infuse your armpits and crotch, thus attracting a partner - at least in theory. In some cases, all that hair simply results in a funky stench. In that case, hit the showers.

I’m also curious about a hairy phenomenon I’ve witnessed along our Florida beaches. Why is it the hairier the man, the smaller the Speedo? Is it some unwritten bathing suit creed? If you’re going to sport a banana-hammock, at least have your significant other run a razor over your torso before you hit the sand. The public will thank you.
And finally, we must address the balding issue. I imagine men feel about balding the way women feel about cellulite: it’s one of the harsh realities of an aging body. Yes, some men come through unscathed, and they have their genetics to thank for it. But for many men, male pattern baldness is a fact of life. But here’s a bit of hope: bald is in! So shun the comb-over and reach for that razor. We gals prefer smooth skin over a hair flap any day.

Fortunately, men are now taking a more active role in body hair maintenance. The era of “manscaping” is upon us and in my opinion, is long overdue. For centuries, women have plucked, shaved, and waxed their way to baby smoothness. It’s about time you men joined in on the fun. So trim those orifices and wax that back and perhaps we’ll forgive you for leaving the toilet seat up.

 Happy New Year and I'll catch you next Friday!