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Glenn Nichols, surrounded by his hospice team. The author is in yellow.

Genetic Linkage

A Medical Manual from 1909

June 22, 2011

Tags: medical history, self abuse, pharmacopeia, feminism, sexism, spermatorrhea, Dr. R. V. Pierce, Invalids' Hotel and Surgical Institute, low T, Ricki Lewis, WebMD, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, masturbation

I discovered a treasure at a thrift store. For 89 cents, I bought “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English or Medicine Simplified,” by Dr. R. V. Pierce, head of The Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute in Buffalo, New York, circa 1909. In these days of WebMD and direct-to-consumer genetic testing, this peek into medical history is quite an eye opener.

The first part of the 1,000-page tome is eerily similar to the human anatomy and physiology textbooks I co-author. Some things don’t change much. The final section unveils an astonishing natural pharmacopeia, from various barks and roots, to pulverized rabbit testicles to cure older men suffering from erectile dysfunction, or perhaps the newly-named “low T.” In between are sections that are just odd.

Chapters cover hygiene, “mother and babe,” marriage, and my personal favorite, “self abuse.” “Statistics show that insanity is frequently caused by masturbation,” admonishes Dr. P., and it can be deadly. He rails against “criminal abortion,” which is “secretly practiced by women who desire to rid themselves of the evidence of immorality, and by those in wedlock who wish to avoid the care and responsibility of rearing offspring.” And the good doctor has ideas about race that echo back to Darwin. While genetic researchers today marvel at the diverse genomes of the Koisan of Namibia, Dr. P. equates them to baboons.

The Medical Adviser is just as telling for what it omits – cancer, for example – from a time when tuberculosis (“consumption”), smallpox, and various fevers were of far more concern. It teems with terms probably not uttered in decades, and new to me: erysipelas, quinsy, scrofula, and of course spermatorrhea, about which the esteemed author obsesses (more on that soon).

The book is festooned with marvelous illustrations and page after page of testimonials. Sexism is entrenched. While names and photographs accompany the musings of women with “female weakness,” “womb trouble,” and “nervous collapse,” complaints from men with the aforementioned spermatorrhea (“seminal weakness,” aka premature ejaculation, thanks to self abuse) are identified only by case numbers.

I think Dr. P. could have used a female co-author.

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