The Medicine of Older TImes

by Canadians2000 on October 26, 2017 - 1:10pm

       During the trip to the Osler Library that was on the McGill campus my class and I had the opportunity to work with some old artifacts which happened to be books. The book my group worked with was William Cockburn’s," Sea Diseases: Or A Treatise Of Their Nature, Caufes, And Cure. Also, An Essay On Bleeding In Fevers;". What was great about the book was the fact that the information that was portrayed throughout the pages was about how they discovered diseases that happened while men sailed the seas. This book is very important from a historian perspective because the author gave historians of today an idea of what it was like to study medicine from the day. Not only is it interesting to historians but also people studying diseases or trying to develop a cure because since the author discovered a lot of information. Even though the cure wasn’t found a future medical student or doctor will pick up where he left up and end up finishing the work until the cure is found.

Cockburn concentrated his study mostly on how to find out what causes the diseases. His main study is finding out the different types of diseases. In his book he showcases the different types of illnesses that he found for example, he found out many different fevers, he also discusses the scurvy disease, as well as diarrhea. He mostly studied seamen and men who worked in the navy. Even though in the title of his books that says he studies to find the cure as well he seemed to have trouble in doing so. As well, since my group and I did not have a lot of time with the book is was difficult to see what kind of cures he found for the diseases he was studying. The information that he gathered while doing his studies is very influential to us today because his information let future people who work in medicine work their way to find out what they can do to either treat or cure the disease that Cockburn discovered. The issue with the book though is that the book is not really in order the information is more like an abstract. Finding something can be challenging in terms of genuinely finding a direct answer. The way he wrote his books was weird for us. He would start on one idea and then start veering off track and then make his way back and go off again. He would end up intertwining ideas midway through what he is writing. One big disadvantage of being a doctor throughout that time period is the fact that there was a limited amount of resources when it came to treat an illness or an injury. As the text written by E. C. Spray, “Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment” says, “Disease symptoms such as pus or diarrhoea were a beneficial sign, attesting to nature's efforts to purge the body of harmful and corrupted humours.” This quote is important because it proves what Cockburn was studying and trying to accomplish.

To continue, the major setback during that time period was the fact that surgeries were very risky so when it came to people being put under the knife. To study the body and disease cutting into the body is something that can help the study. The issue is that people were scared of surgeries because of how excruciatingly painful they were and the fact the survival rate was about 50%. Even studying on dead bodies turned out to be a challenge as well since back then they mostly worked on criminals who were sentenced to die. Even with these setbacks Cockburn still tried to find cures and discover diseases. As Spray says, “Pneumatics and hydrostatics were just two of the numerous areas in which mathematical and experimental natural philosophy shaped medicine”. The importance of this quote is to show the fact that these therapists throughout that time were curious about many things and when they had the opportunity they would test the hypothesis’ that they were attempting to prove.

In conclusion, this time period was very limited to the resources they had at their disposal. Even though they had these limitations they still opened the doors for modern medicine to take place. Cockburn was very influential with his book about sea diseases which led to cures about the illnesses he was studying. Overall without these ancient works modern medicine would not be as impressive as it is today. The question I wonder is that what will future historians think of our medicine in 200-400 years time from us?


Works Cited: E. C. Spray, “Health and Medicine in the Enlightenment,” in Mark Jackson (ed.) The Oxford History of the       History of Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 82-99.

" Sea Diseases: Or A Treatise Of Their Nature, Caufes, And Cure. Also, An Essay On Bleeding In Fevers;" William Cockburn