A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

Being a bit of a fusspot about what I read (and bearing in mind that I’ll *never* have enough time in my life to read all the books I want to) I tend to be a little careful about review books, only requesting or reading ones that I think I’ll like. However, occasionally an unexpected volume pops through my door and that happened recently with this lovely new hardback from Oxford University Press. I was a bit flummoxed at first, but when I started exploring the content I found that it was quite a little treasure! “A Cabinet…” is an anthology; compiled by classicist J.C. McKeown, it draws from a wide range of texts from the early days of medicine and presents them in user-friendly chunks organised by categories, ready for the casual and untrained reader to enjoy. The results, as they say, are fascinating!

I should say up front that I’m a poor student of the true Classics, never having got back quite as far as Ancient Greece and Rome in my reading. I know the names, but not the content, so I approached the book as a complete novice. Interestingly, however, many of the texts here have never been translated into English before, so McKeown is charting new territory. He’s previously produced other “Cabinet of…” books, cover Roman and Greek Curiosities generally and on the evidence of the Medical book they should make good reading.

As McKeown points out in his erudite introduction, the science of medicine has changed dramatically since its early days; much of what the ancients took for granted, such as links to religion and magic, are dismissed out of hand nowadays (well – in professional circles, anyway!). Used as we are nowadays to constant medical innovation, back in the classical past medicine was a fairly unchanging art, with those practicing drawing on their forebears rather than innovating. And what we would nowadays call ‘quack remedies’ were treated with all seriousness; some of them sound remarkably grim, one of the milder examples being binding a horse’s teeth around a child’s neck to cure teething pains…

McKeown is upfront about the reasons he’s chosen many of the extracts; he sets out to entertain the modern reader and certainly he did this one! I thought it would be fun to share a few favourite quotes from this eminently dippable book; it’s an ideal gift for any medic or hypochondriac you might know, or anyone who likes to read about the horrors and peculiarities of medicine of the past!

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From the section ‘Sex Matters’:

“Sexual intercourse gives relief to a man who has been bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion, but it harms the woman who is his partner.” Pliny

“Uninhibited fornication cures dysentery.” Hippocrates

From the section ‘Women and Children’:

” If a nursing infant has a fever and you lay him down to sleep surrounded by cucumbers of the same length as the child, he will be cured immediately, since all the heat will be drawn off from him into the cucumbers.” Anonymous Byzantine

“Moistening a child’s skull with a cold sponge and then tying a frog to it belly up is a very effective treatment for heatstroke.” Pliny (what *was* he thinking??)

From the section ‘Preventative Medicine’:

A sick person is beyond all hope of recovery if his doctor urges him to live with no regard for moderation.” Seneca

From the section ‘Treatment and Cures’:

‘Eating boiled viper meat makes the eyesight keener, tones up the nervous system, and checks scrofulous swellings.’ Dioscorides
(I could go on and quote the preparation instructions but as a vegetarian it makes me a bit queasy…)

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