The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘medicine’

Night Doctors

October 11, 2016 | by

Nineteenth-century medical schools plundered the graves of African Americans.


“I remember a colored lady was going to work early in the morning, about half past five o’clock. She was standing at Twelfth and Market Streets when an automobile came up. A man in the automobile spoke to her, ‘Mary, which way are you going? I’ll take you where you want to go in a hurry. The trolleys are all blocked.’ But the lady wouldn’t get in the automobile.” The story, collected in Tristram Potter Coffin and Henning Cohen’s 1966 Folklore in America, begins with a fair degree of menace but is otherwise unremarkable: a single woman harassed by a stranger in a car, the kind of danger women everywhere in America face. Only at the end does it become strange. “The man kept on insisting,” the unnamed respondent continues, “and the woman became frightened. Just then a colored man across the way saw her and started towards her. At that the man in the automobile left. He was a night doctor and was going to take the lady to the hospital.”

Shadowy, elusive, terrifying—for well over a century after the Civil War the night doctors moved through the cities and through American folklore, looking for their victims. Read More »

Woman Will Be Able to Resist

September 9, 2016 | by

Image: Gianni Dagli Orti.

This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today, the final extract: Read More »

Writing Is a Nefarious Business

November 10, 2015 | by

“Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t, William Carlos Williams?” asks the venerable women’s-hour host Mary McBride. 

“Writing for forty years!” replies the poet with alarming jocularity. “That’s a nefarious business, you know!” Read More »

Madness and Meaning

April 22, 2015 | by

Depictions of insanity through history.


Nebuchadnezzar turned into an animal, 1410.

Modern psychiatry seems determined to rob madness of its meanings, insisting that its depredations can be reduced to biology and nothing but biology. One must doubt it. The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness and civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or to prove no more than an epiphenomenal feature of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been.

Western culture throughout its long and tangled history provides us with a rich array of images, a remarkable set of windows into both popular and latterly professional beliefs about insanity. The sacred books of the Judeo-Christian tradition are shot through with stories of madness caused by possession by devils or divine displeasure. From Saul, the first king of the Israelites (made mad by Yahweh for failing to carry out to the letter the Lord’s command to slay every man, woman, and child of the Amalekite tribe, and all their animals, too), to the man in the country of the Gaderenes “with an unclean spirit” (maddened, naked, and violent, whose demons Christ casts out and causes to enter a herd of swine, who forthwith rush over a cliff into the sea to drown), here are stories recited for centuries by believers, and often transformed into pictorial form. Read More »

The Best Medicine

February 25, 2015 | by


“He just simply couldn‘t stop it / He never knew when it was coming”: Winsor McCay‘s Little Sammy Sneeze, 1905.

If you’re not sick, you soon will be, and all the hand sanitizer in the world won’t save you. Everyone is a potential foe; no one wants to admit it. This morning on the subway, everyone was coughing and sneezing with varying degrees of discretion. The only people who seemed at all comfortable were two Japanese tourists wearing paper surgical masks. Well, maybe also the old man with a roll of toilet paper hanging around his neck on a loop of string. I envied all of them. 

All you can do is read Mark Twain. He wrote “How to Cure a Cold” for the Golden Era shortly after arriving in San Francisco in September 1863. Twain may never have actually said the famous thing about a San Francisco summer being the coldest winter he’d ever known, but the Bay Area fog was presumably enough to aggravate a lingering head cold—well, that or a nineteenth-century cross-country train ride. According to a series of humorous letters to the editor Twain sent in to the Call and the Enterprise around this period, he’d had the cold—and an ensuing bout of bronchitis—for at least a month when he wrote this piece chronicling various home remedies. Read More »

Bayou Medicine

July 23, 2014 | by


The swamp doctor also stabs bears, apparently.

Given the ungodly humidity, today seems as good a day as any to peruse an 1858 volume whose full title is The Swamp Doctor’s Adventures in the South-West; Containing the Whole of The Louisiana Swamp Doctor; Streaks Of Squatter Life; and Far-Western Scenes; in a Series Of Forty-Two Humorous Southern And Western Sketches, Descriptive Of Incidents And Character, by John Robb (“Madison Tensas, M.D.” and “Solitaire”) author of “Swallowing Oysters Alive, etc.”

Oh, the glories of the public domain! Here’s a sordid bit from a chapter called “The Mississippi Patent Plan for Pulling Teeth”:

I had just finished the last volume of Wistar’s Anatomy, well nigh coming to a period myself with weariness at the same time, and with feet well braced up on the mantel-piece, was lazily surveying the closed volume which lay on my lap, when a hurried step in the front gallery aroused me from the revery into which I was fast sinking.

Turning my head as the office door opened, my eyes fell on the well-developed proportions of a huge flatboatsman who entered the room wearing a countenance, the expression of which would seem to indicate that he had just gone into the vinegar manufacture with a fine promise of success.

“Do you pull teeth, young one?” said he to me.

“Yes, and noses too,” replied I, fingering my slender moustache, highly indignant at the juvenile appellation, and bristling up by the side of the huge Kentuckian, till I looked as large as a thumb-lancet by the side of an amputating knife.

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