The Past Is Prologue


How will historians characterize our time? The question never fails to fascinate me. There are many designations that might be applied, but recent events suggest to me that maybe this era might come to be known as the Age of Hubris, or, perhaps, the Triumph of Scientism.

I was reading recently of the death of George Washington, at age 69. The general died of an acute infection of his upper respiratory tract, perhaps epiglottitis; possibly diphtheria. At the onset of his illness, he asked for the plantation’s overseer to attend him, and suggested that he open a vein to drain some blood — a favorite therapeutic measure of the president, who used it often to "cure" illnesses of his slaves. About a half pint of blood was taken.

When his condition worsened, Washington consented to be seen by his physician, as well as two other well-known local physicians. It could be said, I suppose, that he had the best medical treatment available at the time. However, their treatment did not differ significantly from that of the overseer. They applied poultices: one of dried beetles, to the neck, and others of bran, to the legs. A vinegar gargle was attempted, but caused the president to choke, and was discontinued. The principal treatment was more bloodletting. Two bleedings of about 20 ounces each were done, then, later, another bleeding of 40 ounces; that evening, another 32 ounces. By the time he died, the president had lost almost half of his blood, perhaps accounting for his peaceful demeanor as death approached: he was too weak to do anything more than lie quietly and die, which he did.

Today we read of such "treatment" with incredulity. How could bleeding possibly cure anyone of anything? Were his doctors fools? No, they were intelligent men, well trained by the standards of the day. Couldn’t they see the uselessness of their treatments? Evidently not.

More recent health news is that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the former Senator, now campaigning for the presidential candidacy, and Tony Snow, erstwhile newsreader, and currently the president’s press secretary, have suffered recurrences of their cancers. We can assume, as we did in the case of Washington, that these two unfortunate individuals had the best medical care available. We’ve come a long way since bloodletting! Yet, despite the best anti-cancer treatments available, Mrs. Edwards’ breast cancer has metastasized to her bones, while Mr. Snow’s colon cancer has spread to nodes in his pelvis. Sadly, there is nothing particularly remarkable about this, and it is only newsworthy because these two victims are public figures.

Will future generations look upon our treatment of cancer with the same amazement with which we view the treatment of Washington’s final illness? Would the physicians treating Washington have been receptive to a less orthodox therapy? One of those men at his bedside suggested a new procedure known today as tracheotomy. It might have saved his live. His two colleagues, however, demurred.

Today, as then, we have orthodox medical treatments for various diseases, including, of course, cancer. The treatment of cancer can hardly be called a success, except semantically: survive for five years, and the medical establishment may label you "cured." But today we have science! Lots of very expensive machines and treatments, millions of words of published reports, white coats, clipboards — the whole impressive ritual. If a cure hasn’t been found, it will be, with the expenditure of a few billion more dollars, and more research. The idea of an alternative approach is simply preposterous. Why, it isn’t even scientific!

If it’s not disease that plagues us, perhaps it’s injustice. But we can solve that problem, too! More laws, more regulations, more jails, if necessary. Not only will injustice be eradicated, but unkindness, meanness, or even simple rudeness.

Ignorance? More money for better schools will take care of that. Inadequate nutrition? Experts and we have so many of them!!! — will tell us what, and how much to eat, and, if necessary, kindly but firmly punish us if we eat the wrong things.

Truly, there is no problem that human ingenuity cannot solve. Utopia beckons. Science can explain everything, and make all things well and perfect, or at least it will be able to do that with just a little more research, and better funding. And for the perfection of human existence by the exercise of human intelligence, carefully directed and administered, what better instrument exists than government, that repository of wisdom and virtue.

It is likely, I think, that our descendants will marvel at our hubris — or, perhaps, our ignorance.

The body politic totters and gasps; the bloodletting continues unabated.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.