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Doctors Killed George Washington: Hundreds of Fascinating Facts from the World of Medicine

Doctors Killed George Washington: Hundreds of Fascinating Facts from the World of Medicine

by Erin Barrett

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It's no joke that we are all fascinated by the medical profession and the people in it. With Doctors Killed George Washington, trivia mavens Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo explore accidental medical discoveries, medical follies, bizarre cures, and more. This titillating tome puts doctors and medical history under the microscope and exposes more than 500


It's no joke that we are all fascinated by the medical profession and the people in it. With Doctors Killed George Washington, trivia mavens Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo explore accidental medical discoveries, medical follies, bizarre cures, and more. This titillating tome puts doctors and medical history under the microscope and exposes more than 500 little-known facts and outrageous oddities from the wild world of medicine. Did you know? Before the advent of surgery, ancient Egyptian doctors put their patients under by hitting them on the head with a mallet.

Editorial Reviews

Filled with blood and gore and lots of statistics, this small volume contains medical facts from ancient times to the present in the tiny bites promised by the title of the series. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Doctors Killed George Washington

Hundreds of Fascinating Facts from the World of Medicine


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2002 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57324-719-1


Medical Oddities

It's true that official death rates go down when doctors go on strike. For example, a recent doctors' strike in Israel saw death rates tumble by 39 percent. Yes, some drop might have come because life-threatening operations were postponed. But here's how to account for most of the drop: In reality, death goes on as normal; it's just that a strike postpones the filling out of death records.

Arteries & Science

A study found that 1 out of 4 patients diagnosed with high blood pressure in a doctor's office has normal blood pressure when measured away from the doctor's office.

A healthy human's blood pressure is about the same as a spider's.

Licorice can raise your blood pressure.

The official name for that blood-pressure measuring cuff is a sphygmomanometer.

Light flickering at a rate of 10–30 blinks per second can stimulate epileptic seizures in some people. Children are most susceptible—the peak age is thirteen—and three-quarters of the victims are boys.

Culprits have included cartoons, video games, TVs with bad vertical hold, disco lights, and even the sun shining through Venetian blinds.

Anybody who has given up chocolate for tofu can completely understand this: Statistical studies in the 1990s indicated that lowering blood cholesterol, while healthy for the heart, appeared to correlate to depression and deaths from suicide, violence, and accidents.

If you work with pigs, you're more likely to have your appendix operated on: two and a half times more likely if you're a pig farmer; four times if you're a pig butcher. Pigs carry the Yersinia bacteria, which can cause both appendicitis and a harmless intestinal inflammation that closely mimics appendicitis. As a precaution, doctors have had to operate either way, discovering only after cutting open the body whether their pig-wrangling patients have diseased appendixes or healthy ones.

Saints Preserve Us!

According to Catholic teaching, Saint Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists. Her claim to the job comes because an angry mob yanked out her teeth one by one in 249 C.E. when she refused to renounce Christianity.

Saint Harvey is the patron saint of optometrists, a little strange since he was blind from birth and was never credited with any eye-related miracles.

Pick your disease and the Catholic Church has a patron saint for it. Here are some you may wish to know about: Saint Acacius (headaches), Saint Cathal (hernias), Saint Giles (lameness, insanity, sterility, and epilepsy), Saint Drogo ("gravel in the urine"), Saint George (syphilis), Saint Catherine of Alexandria (diseased tongues), Saint Lucy (eye diseases, dysentery, and "hemorrhages in general"), Saint Hilary of Poitiers ("backward children"), Saint Servatus ("leg diseases"), and Saint Benedict (fever, inflammation, kidney disease, and "temptations of the devil").

What's the "cape doctor"? A prevailing wind in the Cape of Good Hope that locals have long believed prevents illnesses by carrying germs out to sea.

At Tokyo's Kei University Hospital, 30 percent of patients diagnosed with throat polyps claimed that karaoke singing was the cause.

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people are particularly irritable between 4 and 6 P.M. Here's one bit of statistical evidence: In hospital emergency rooms, more human bites are treated during that two-hour time period than in any other.

Doctors in Fiji during World War II discovered that coconut milk can be used as an emergency substitute blood plasma and that coconut fiber works better than catgut for stitching surgical incisions. But that's not all. Some South Pacific coral is so nearly identical to human bone in mineral content and porosity that it's been used by plastic surgeons to replace human bone.

Conflict of Interest: Before the 1930s, many ambulance services were operated by funeral homes.

Much turn-of-the-twentieth-century silliness greeted the invention of the x-ray. Evangelists tried to find the soul with it. A professor tried to use x-rays to transmit anatomical drawings directly into his students' heads. New Jersey considered a law to make it illegal to sell x-ray glasses designed for looking through women's clothes. For added safety, a London clothes manufacturer did a brisk business in selling "x-ray-proof undergarments" to shy ladies.

God Bless You! June Clark was a Miami teenager who had sneezed continuously for 155 days in a row. After several other approaches failed, they started giving her mild electric shocks each time she sneezed. For whatever reason, it stopped her sneezing pretty quickly.

Einstein's Brain

Last time we checked, Albert Einstein's brain is still in Wichita with the man who did his autopsy in 1955. Dr. Thomas Harvey mostly keeps it in a bottle in his office, except for the occasional outing. For example, Harvey schlepped the brain cross-country to visit Einstein's granddaughter in 1997, reuniting generations even after death.

Was Einstein's brain different from yours and mine? In the summer of 1999, a group of scientists from McMaster University in Ontario borrowed the brain from Dr. Harvey and found that the inferior parietal region—the part of the brain that's associated with mathematics, visuals, and music—is 15 percent wider than most people's brains.

If you define obesity as being thirty pounds or more over a healthy weight, Russia's people are the most obese people in the world (25.4 percent of their citizens), followed closely by Mexico's (25.1 percent). The United States isn't far behind—about 20 percent, or 1 in 5.

Cutting & Pasting

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's biggest gall bladder weighed twenty-three pounds and was removed from a sixty-nine-year-old woman in Maryland in 1989.

Who had the most medical operations in history? William Mcllroy of Great Britain. In the fifty years before he moved into a retirement home in 1979, Mcllroy had an estimated 400 operations at a hundred different hospitals using at least twenty-two different aliases. Doctors say he had an extreme case of the psychological illness Munchausen's Syndrome, which manifested itself in a constant craving for medical attention.

Cindy Jackson—not Michael Jackson— holds the record for the most elective plastic surgery done: twenty-seven operations over a period of nine years. Born on a pig farm in Ohio, Jackson has had two nose jobs; three full face lifts; thigh liposuction; jawline, knee, and abdomen work; breast reduction and augmentation; and permanent makeup. She has spent about $100,000. And we hope she is finally happy with the way she looks.

An American urologist was the buyer of Napoleon's penis in 1977. He paid $3,800, or roughly $3,800 per inch (to be fair, it was unerect). The penis was one of several body parts removed during autopsy by a team of French and Belgian doctors.

Henry VIII chopped off the head of his wife Anne Boleyn. Perhaps he should've started with other body parts first. She suffered from the condition of polymazia, meaning that she had three breasts, and had six fingers on one hand and six fingers on one of her feet.

Can your heart stand still without you dying? Sure, happens all the time in rests between beats. If you added them all together in an average lifetime, you'd find that your heart stands still for about twelve years.

Premature Burial

For about 150 years during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, people in Europe and America were in the grip of an obsessive fear of being buried alive. Helpful doctors came up with reassuring procedures to make sure a dead person was really dead. For example, blowing tobacco smoke up the anus with a special pipe was thought to be a solid way of separating the quick from the dead. It probably still is.

Lurid stories were spread in the popular press about premature burial. Some of them were spread by well-meaning doctors; for example, postmortem reports described corpses with their fingers chewed off—a sign, some doctors said, that the corpse awoke and was panicked and hungry enough to chew its own extremities. In reality, most or all of the cases were actually the result of rodent infestation.

Part of the problem was that doctors were not all that good at diagnosing death. In 1740, anatomist Jacques Bénigne Winslow wrote, "The onset of putrification was the only reliable indicator that the subject had died."

To avoid premature burial, Winslow suggested a series of measures to determine whether a person was really, really dead.

The individual's nostrils are to be irritated by introducing sternutaries, errhines [things that induce sneezing and produce mucus], juices of onions, garlic and horse-radish.... The gums are to be rubbed with garlic, and the skin stimulated by the liberal application of whips and nettles. The intestines can be irritated by the most acrid enemas, the limbs agitated through violent pulling, and the ears shocked by hideous Shrieks and excessive Noises. Vinegar and salt should be poured in the corpse's mouth and where they cannot be had, it is customary to pour warm Urine into it, which has been observed to produce happy Effects.

Of course, if none of these actually produced the "happy Effects," it was time to bring out the tough love, just to make sure the presumed corpse was really dead: cutting the soles of the feet, thrusting needles under the nails, pouring hot wax on its forehead, and even—suggested one doctor/cleric— probing the anus with a hot poker. If none of these actually elicited a response, doctors assumed that they could safely pronounce the person dead.

There is no written record, by the way, of any of these methods actually reviving anybody. Too bad—we'd like to hear the reactions of the revived person awakening to the ministrations described above.

Premature Resurrection

In 1788 in New York City, eight people were killed and scores wounded in three days of rioting against doctors. And the house of one Sir John Temple was looted when the semi-literate mob misread his title and first name as "Surgeon." What set "the Doctors Riots" off? A prank by a medical student named John Hicks Jr., who terrified a boy by waving a dismembered corpse's arm at him and telling him that the arm had belonged to his mother. The boy's father and his bricklaying co-workers rushed the laboratory and, discovering mutilated corpses, wrecked the place. The civil unrest spread from there.

Grave robbing by faculty and students was very common at the time. Calling themselves "Resurrectionists," teacher-student teams would illegally stage midnight raids on local graveyards, pulling a freshly buried body out of the ground and replacing the dirt in about an hour. It became the custom among grieving citizens in some university towns to place iron bars on a grave and post an armed guard on the site for two weeks, until the body had putrefied enough to make it unusable for dissection.

The Doctors Riots sound like they should be shrugged off as a bizarre anomaly, but that's not true. Between 1765 and 1852 there were at least thirteen riots against grave-robbing medical schools in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.


Medicine Marches On....

"It should be the function of medicine to help people die young as late in life as possible."

—Dr. Ernst Wunder, president of the American Health Foundation

What's the world's oldest profession? Anthropologists say health care, in the form of a tribal shaman.

Ironically, very early medicine was often as good as or better than that of more recent eras. Doctors in ancient societies had figured out sutures, poultices, resetting dislocations and fractures, splints, and the importance of cleaning wounds. They used purges, laxatives, emetics, enemas, diuretics, and a wide variety of plant extracts, at least fifty of which—including narcotics, painkillers, and digitalis—are still in use today.

The first psychotherapists may have been a priestly Greek sect called the Asclepiades. They claimed to be direct descendents of Asclepius, the god of healing.

Long before penicillin was discovered, Egyptian doctors used it without knowing it: they treated infected wounds with moldy bread.

The earliest known dentists practiced in Egypt around 3700 B.C.E.

As far as we know, Egyptians were the first who used gold for filling teeth. That was about 4,500 years ago.

The same oils, gums, and spices that Egyptian mummifiers used to preserve the dead were used by Egyptian doctors to protect wounds.

Ancient Greek doctors discovered that urine was aseptic and so used it, or a mix of wine and vinegar, on open wounds.

In ancient times, electric eels were sometimes used to give shock treatment to epileptic patients.

The ancient Hindus were skilled surgeons, and were probably the first to succeed with reconstructive surgery. They're credited with performing the first skin grafts.

Amynthas of Alexandria is credited by some with having carried out the first nose job (rhinoplasty). This was in the third century B.C.E.

How did barbers end up being surgeons in previous centuries? Blame the Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church. In 1215, it forbade clerics to spill blood, so surgery was forbidden to priests, scholars, and gentlemen. Physicians continued to be considered members of a learned profession; because they had steady hands and the necessary tools, barbers and dentists practiced surgery, then considered a more menial profession.

In the 1600s, it became the height of fashion to dress up and go to an anatomy theater to watch surgeons dissect corpses. The anatomy theater in Leyden, Italy, for example, had hundreds of seats and sometimes still had standing room only crowds.

During the days when drawing and quartering was a popular punishment, anatomy students were encouraged to go to public executions to see what they could learn when prisoners were cut into four pieces and their internal organs pulled out.

One of the most successful physicians of the American colonies was not a doctor at all but a lawyer and governor of Connecticut. Since there were so few real doctors who made the trip to the New World, any educated person was expected to lend a hand. John Winthrop arrived in Connecticut in 1631 and, when he was not performing his duties as governor, developed a large medical practice that included a number of distant patients that he saw only by mail (notably including Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island).

Doctors in Tudor-era England were expected to take up residence in a patient's house until he or she got better.

Before the germ theory took hold, most learned medical people believed that disease was caused by "miasma," a smelly gas. The fact that sewage pits, rotting carcasses, and the like—all of which really could spread disease—smelled bad was seen as positive proof of the theory.

How did doctors discover that lymph nodes act as a blood filter? It happened accidentally while doing an autopsy on a sailor. He was heavily tattooed and his lymph nodes were dyed with ink that had migrated.

Christopher Wren invented the first hypodermic needle, using a hollow feather quill and a sheep's bladder to inject a dog with opium, to no ill effect. Wren was the architect who, after the Great London Fire of 1666, designed many of the major buildings in London.

Despite the mythology, George Washington didn't have wooden teeth. He actually had four sets made from a mix of hippopotamus bone, elephant ivory, and teeth from cows and dead people. None of them worked very well, and the discomfort of his dentures is one of the reasons Washington looks so sour in his portraits. (While we're separating tooth from lie, let's do another one: Despite legend, Paul Revere never crafted a set of dentures for Washington.)

Johannes Kepler had many accomplishments as an astronomer, but he was also the first to realize that the construction of the eye inverts the images of what it sees.

The first eyeglasses were designed by Franciscan monks, William de Rubruk and Roger Bacon, in the late thirteenth century. More than four centuries later, Ben Franklin hit middle age and needed two sets of glasses, so he did the monks one better. He halved his two sets of lenses and glued the mismatched pieces together, creating the first bifocals.

Although Leonardo da Vinci sketched out the idea of contact lenses in the late fifteenth century, the first ones weren't made until centuries later. The first attempt at a glass contact lens took place in the 1880s and was designed for someone who had had an eyelid amputated. It covered the whole eye.

Excerpted from Doctors Killed George Washington by ERIN BARRETT, JACK MINGO. Copyright © 2002 Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo have authored 20 books, including How the Cadillac Got Its Fins, The Couch Potato Guide to Life and the best-selling Just Curious Jeeves. They have written articles for many major periodicals including The New York Times, Salon, Reader's Digest, and The Washington Post and have generated more than 30,000 questions for trivia games and game shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Their website, which lists their "This Day in History" nationally-syndicated column.

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