Thursday, November 29, 2012

Belated 38th

Yesterday was my birthday.  I didn’t wake up until 5 PM.  I was tired.  Nobody in my family remembered it was my birthday, though I was listening to my accumulated voicemails on the drive back to DC this afternoon and found that my art dealer boss had not only called to wish me well, he’d sung the entire Birthday Song, in tune no less, on a message yesterday morning.  So sweet.  My mother could be forgiven for forgetting my birthday, since I forgot hers earlier this year, but she had to nag my siblings by text message to get them to congratulate me on the occasion. Bob called first, then my sister.  They both regaled me with the medical happenings of the day, from the administration of an activated charcoal dosage to a prostate exam workshop. 

Ah, the prostate.  For a nonmedically-employed spinster virgin, I know way more than I should about prostates and the curious history of the treatment of what is now discretely referred to as erectile dysfunction.  Aside from my one-time application to work at Osbon Medical Systems (a firm specializing in vacuum-pump inflation of that certain portion of the male anatomy: a technique perfected, and then, in a brilliant stroke of lucky timing, sold off by its inventor just before the advent of Viagra), I hadn’t devoted any time to this subject, but then I chanced to check out Pope Brock’s 2008 book Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, as my audiobook for the drive south for Thanksgiving.
A biography of “Doctor” John Brinkley, a snake-oil salesman of superlative skill, with less talent with the scalpel, but no less enthusiasm for all that, Charlatan chronicles how Brinkley came to convince hundreds, if not thousands, of desperate men to allow him to insert freshly-harvested goat testes into their own scrotums, debilitating many of these unfortunate fellows far more than their original sad conditions, and costing at least 41 their lives.  And yet, as Brock points out, there were other, better qualified, “real” physicians who at the same time were pushing sexual rejuvenation techniques almost as strange, which were subscribed to by many of the rich and famous.  Their occasionally-misguided researches eventually led to the synthesis of testosterone, and to other gland-related breakthroughs, whereas Brinkley’s broadcasts in efforts to bolster his quack enterprises gave birth to innovations in totally unrelated fields, specifically: advertising, public relations, modern political campaigning, and contemporary country music. 

But it did leave me wondering: who was the person who thought up the notion of injecting female human blood into rabbits to determine whether the woman was pregnant or not?  Who made the connection between the rabbit dying and the woman being pregnant?  Or is that an old wives tale about medical practice of yore?  I think a fascinating history course would be an overview of the development of medicine, and how we have come to define medicine as it is today, how some ideas have revolved in and out of favor in both “legitimate” and what I’ll delicately call “peripheral” medical practice, and how there is always some sucker out there willing to spend good money on cure-alls and powders promising him he'll be a god, at least from the waist down, after application.

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