7 Health Tips From Ancient Physicians

Portrait of Galen
Portrait of Galen

If you feel bombarded by conflicting advice on how to stay (or get) healthy, you’re not alone. Intermittent fasting, juice cleanses, and low-carb diets are a few of today’s health trends, but fashionable health advice is nothing new. Consider these health tips from ancient physicians, which range from surprisingly relevant to downright absurd. (Just don't consider any of it actual medical advice, of course—that's what modern physicians are for.)

1. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DREAMS.

Galen, a Greek physician who treated Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius among others, wrote hundreds of texts about medicine starting around 150 CE. Galen believed that what you dream about can indicate your overall level of wellness and reveal specific ailments you might be suffering from. Before you call him a quack, keep in mind that he acknowledged that some dreams are simply a random assortment of the day’s events, rather than a direct message about the state of one’s health. As he wrote in On Diagnosis in Dreams:

“The vision-in-sleep [dream], in my opinion, indicates a disposition of the body. Someone dreaming a conflagration is troubled by yellow bile, but if he dreams of smoke, or mist, or deep darkness, by black bile. Rainstorm indicates that cold moisture abounds; snow, ice, and hail, cold phlegm. ... But since in sleep the soul does not produce impressions based on dispositions of the body only, but also from the things habitually done by us day by day, and some from what we have thought—and indeed some things are revealed by it in fashion of prophesy ... the diagnosis of the body from the visions-in-sleep that arise from the body becomes difficult.”

2. DON’T CHANGE YOUR DIET TOO QUICKLY.

Line engraving of Hippocrates
Hippocrates

Greek physician Hippocrates, now known as the father of medicine, wrote several works chock full of health advice. In On Ancient Medicine (written around 400 BCE, although the dates and authorship of the text are somewhat disputed), he explains the wisdom of treading slowly when it comes to making adjustments to your diet. As he explains it, some people are used to eating only one meal per day, while others feel better eating two meals per day. If someone who is accustomed to eating once per day suddenly adds another meal to his schedule, disease can occur.

“But there are certain persons who cannot readily change their diet with impunity; and if they make any alteration in it for one day, or even for a part of a day, are greatly injured thereby. Such persons, provided they take dinner when it is not their wont, immediately become heavy and inactive, both in body and mind, and are weighed down with yawning, slumbering, and thirst; and if they take supper in addition, they are seized with flatulence, tormina [abdominal pain], and diarrhea, and to many this has been the commencement of a serious disease, when they have merely taken twice in a day the same food which they have been in the custom of taking once.”

3. DRINKING TOO MUCH BOOZE CAN CAUSE PIMPLES.

As Galen explains in the Art of Physick, people with high body heat, red cheeks, and a cheerful disposition have a sanguine complexion. Such people, he argues, are more prone to certain conditions such as fevers and phlegm. Luckily, Galen tells sanguine patients how to achieve an optimal diet and exercise program for their body type. He warns that drinking too much beer, ale, and wine can cause a variety of maladies, including scabs, abscesses, fevers, and red pimples.

“Inordinate drinking of strong beer, ale, and wine, breeds hot rhewms scabs and itch, St. Anthony’s fire [a skin infection], quinsies [an infection behind the tonsils], pleuresies [pain when breathing], inflammations, fevers, and red pimples.”

4. BEANS AND FLOWERS CAN FIGHT DYSENTERY.

In On Regimen in Acute Diseases, Hippocrates lays out an easy plan for fighting dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes severe diarrhea. Luckily, no pharmacists are needed for this treatment, but you will have to track down some beans and plant shoots, if you don’t already have them on hand.

“For dysentery. A fourth part of a pound of cleaned beans, and twelve shoots of madder [a Eurasian plant] having been triturated [ground to a fine powder], are to be mixed together and boiled, and given as a linctus [a medicinal syrup] with some fatty substance."

5. IF YOU’RE PREGNANT, STAY AWAY FROM HAMMOCKS.

Detail of a woodcut depicting ancient herbalists and scholars, including Soranus
Detail of a woodcut depicting ancient herbalists and scholars, including Soranus

Scholars credit Sushruta as one of the earliest surgeons and the author of The Sushruta Samhita, a Sanskrit medical text written sometime around 600 BCE. The text warns pregnant women to avoid certain activities, such as fasting, falling, and taking medicine that causes vomiting. But some of the guidelines may sound strange to modern readers. According to Sushruta, pregnant women should not ride a horse, swing on a hammock, or sit on uneven ground, lest those activities cause the fetus to prematurely detach from the uterus.

“Sexual intercourse during pregnancy, riding on horseback, etc., or in any sort of conveyance, a long walk, a false step, a fall, pressure on the womb, running, a blow, sitting or lying down on an uneven ground, or in an uneven posture, fasting … use of emetics or purgatives, swinging in a swing or hammock, indigestion, and use of medicines which induce the labor pain or bring about abortions, and such like causes tend to expel the fetus from its fixture. These causes tend to sever the child from the uterine wall with its placental attachment owing to a kind of Abhighatam (uterine contraction) just as a blow tends to sever a fruit from its pedicel.”

6. IF YOU DON'T WANT TO GET PREGNANT, TRY SNEEZING.

Soranus, a Greek physician who worked in Rome around the early 2nd century CE, had plenty to say about menstruation, contraception, and abortion. As he wrote in Gynecology, sneezing can expel semen from a woman’s body and serve as an effective birth control method. Just remember to squat before you start sneezing.

“And during the sexual act, at the critical moment of coitus when the man is about to discharge the seed, the woman must hold her breath and draw herself away a little, so that the seed may not be hurled too deep into the cavity of the uterus. And getting up immediately and squatting down, she should induce sneezing and carefully wipe the vagina all round; she might even drink something cold.”

7. USE BURNING IRON TO CURE YOUR HEMORRHOIDS.

Hippocrates wrote at length about hemorrhoids, and his writings on the subject survive to this day. In On Hemorrhoids (400 BCE), he offers several methods to remove the offending piles. One of his tricks, which entails burning the hemorrhoids with pieces of hot iron, requires the patient to purge the day before. Sounds like fun.

“I recommend seven or eight small pieces of iron to be prepared, a fathom in size, in thickness like a thick specillum [speculum], and bent at the extremity, and a broad piece should be on the extremity, like a small obolus. Having on the preceding day first purged the man with medicine, on the day of the operation apply the cautery. Having laid him on his back, and placed a pillow below the breech, force out the anus as much as possible with the fingers, and make the irons red-hot, and burn the pile until it be dried up, and so as that no part may be left behind. And burn so as to leave none of the hemorrhoids unburnt, for you should burn them all up.”

5 Controversial Facts About Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

iStock/TerryJ
iStock/TerryJ

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was born on December 10, 1851. Among other things, Dewey was a self-proclaimed reformer, so when working for the Amherst College library in the 1870s, he began to reclassify the facility’s books and how they were organized.

Though the system has gone through plenty of changes over the years, it’s still in wide use all over the world today and forever changed how libraries categorize their books. It has also caused a handful of controversies. In honor of Dewey Decimal Day, we dug into the organizational system—and its creator’s—dark side.

1. Melvil Dewey co-founded the American Library Association, but was forced out because of offensive behavior.

Melvil Dewey was an extremely problematic figure, even in his time. Though he co-founded the American Library Association (ALA), his often-offensive behavior—particularly toward women—didn’t make him a lot of friends.

In Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, author Wayne A. Wiegand described Dewey’s “persistent inability to control himself around women” as his “old nemesis.” In 1905, Dewey and several fellow ALA members took a cruise to Alaska following a successful ALA conference, with the purpose of discussing the organization’s future. Four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time. Within a year, Dewey was forced to step down from his involvement with the organization he helped to create.

2. Dewey required applicants to his School of Library Economy to submit photos.


A History of the Adirondacks, by Alfred Lee Donaldson (1921) // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, where 90 percent of his students were female. It was long rumored that in addition to basic information like name, age, and educational background, Dewey required that prospective female students also submit their bust sizes. While this rumor was eventually proven to be false, Dewey did ask women to submit photos, often noting that “You cannot polish a pumpkin.”

3. A Howard University librarian reorganized Dewey's original system because of its racial bias.

Dewey’s personal biases spilled over into his creation, too, and it has taken sincere effort and work to right those wrongs. In the 1930s, Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter helped create a new system to undo the racist way Dewey’s system treated black writers. As Smithsonian reported:

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

In addition to charges of racism, the DDS has also been accused of being homophobic. Early editions of the system classified books on or regarding LGBT issues under Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem, or even as Medical Disorders.

4. Its 'religion' section is skewed heavily toward Christianity.

The DDS section on religion starts at 200, and no other religion besides Christianity is covered until 290. Given that there are more than 4000 religions in the world, saving a mere 10 numbers for their classification doesn’t leave a lot of room for thorough coverage or exploration. Though some changes have been made as new editions of the system have been introduced, the process of restructuring the entire 200s is a project that has yet to be undertaken.

5. Critics of the system would prefer libraries take the Barnes & Noble approach.

The Dewey Decimal System is the most used library classification system, with the Chicago Tribune estimating that more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries use it. But it’s far from a perfect system. As such, many libraries are experimenting with other organizational techniques, and many are dropping the DDS altogether.

The main complaint that public libraries have is that the Dewey Decimal System does not make reading exciting, and that there are other ways of categorizing and organizing books that are more like that of general bookstores. By doing away with the numbers (which are hard to remember for general library patrons), some libraries are classifying books simply by category and organizing by author—a system they've begun referring to as "Dewey-lite."

6 Fast Facts About Nelly Sachs

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Today, on the 127th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle has been created in memory of writer Nelly Sachs, who died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 78. The German-Swedish poet and playwright wrote movingly about the horrors of the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped by fleeing her home and starting a new life in a foreign land. Here are six things to know about Sachs.

1. She was born in Germany.

Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, she grew up in the city's affluent Tiergarten section. She studied dance and literature as a child, and also started writing romantic poems at age 17.

2. She almost ended up in a concentration camp.

Sachs's father died in 1930, but she and her mother Margarete stayed in Berlin. In 1940, the Gestapo interrogated the two women and tore apart their apartment. They were told they had a week to report to a concentration camp, so they decided to flee the country. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Nelly had corresponded for years, saved their lives by convincing the Swedish royal family to help the two women escape to Sweden.

3. She worked as a translator.

Once Nelly and her mother reached Stockholm, Sachs began learning Swedish and ultimately took up work as a translator. She translated poetry from Swedish to German and vice versa.

4. She was nearly 60 when she published her first book of poetry.

Sachs’s first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), was published in 1947. In this anthology as well as later poems, she used religious imagery to evoke the suffering of her time and the Jewish people.

5. She won the German Book Trade's Peace Prize.

In 1965, Sachs won the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade. She shared a message of forgiveness when she accepted the award from her compatriots. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” she said.

6. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature on her 75th birthday.

Sachs and Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. According to The Nobel Prize’s website, Sachs was recognized "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.”

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