Harrowing Healing

Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages (Perigee) reads like the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Steve Martin played "Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber." While healers once believed "a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft," Theodoric tells a patient's mother, "nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach."

Author Nathan Belofsky shows that sketch was too accurate to count as parody. But readers who are alternately amused and appalled by descriptions of bloodletting, cautery irons, counter-irritation, sympathetic powders, and revolting poultices should not feel too smug. The book ends with a discussion of lobotomies, which were recently considered the height of psychiatric science, raising the question of which current medical practices will one day seem quaint-or barbaric.

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