Book: Marketplace of the Marvelous by Erika Janik
There was a very brief period in my adolescence when I wanted to be a doctor. This was likely influenced by my love of watching M*A*S*H reruns and my nurse-mother’s interest in medicine. Whatever the reason, it led me to a summer of volunteering at the hospital (which quickly taught me that I am not doctor material) and a lifelong casual interest in things medical. That interest drew me to this book, which turned out to be an intriguing history of the medical movements that led into modern medical practices.
Chronicling “medical” trends that mostly began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this book took me through botanics, phrenology, hydropathy, homeopathy, Mesmerism, patent medicines, osteopathy, and chiropractic. While these various fads were quite diverse in the components used, their overarching philosophies were remarkably similar: all of them (with the possible exception of patent medicines) believed in healing of the whole body; all of them advocated what we think of today as a healthy lifestyle; all of them believed their therapies would lead to cures, better health, and social justice; and all believed that their one treatment could cure anything.
This last factor is the one that astonished me the most. Thomson (the creator of the botanic therapy) believed that his 6 plant-based medicines taken in particular doses and methods could cure both sore throats and cancer. Phrenologists believed that reading and interpreting the bumps on a person’s skull could kill pneumonia and ulcers. Got a fever? Lame foot? Gout? Hydropathists insisted that applications and ingestion of cold water would take care of all these problems. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Another common bond, and a rather important and telling one, that these treatments share is that they originated as defiance to the contemporary medical practices, called heroic medicine. Heroic in this instance describes the “magnitude of the intervention.” Heroic measures consisted of intentionally inducing violent purging (both oral and rectal), applying intense heat to the skin in order to cause blisters to form, and, perhaps the best known of the lot, cutting or applying leeches to draw large quantities of blood from patients. Having someone give you a scalp massage or a spinal realignment sounds pretty good compared these “regular” medical practices!
I found this book to be very informative without being too academic. With the exception of the chapter on Mr. Mesmer’s ideas (I guess because I found him too wack-a-doo to believe that anyone found him credible) I was fascinated by each medical movement. I was also interested to see how threads from each of these “irregular” therapies still exist in today’s regular and alternative medicines. Relating the past to the present and demonstrating through chronology how one movement lead into the next, Miss Janik kept me engaged in what could have been a rather ponderous topic.
On a far more personal note, the fun part of this book was relating these different therapies to works of fiction in my reading repertoire. I’d encountered homeopathy in Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys, patent medicine in LM Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea, and osteopathy in Betty Mahmoody’s Not without My Daughter (OK, that one was nonfiction, but still). But the best connection I made was with phrenology. I remember first encountering the word and practice when I was in about 6th grade reading an Archie comic. Just goes to show you that the marvelous is everywhere!