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Thursday, 23 August 2018

University of 3rd AgeTrust Me - I'm a Plague Doctor

Speaker: David Bell

David Bell, a retired civil servant from Newcastle now living in the "plague" village of Eyam in the Peak District, proved to be a most amusing, informative and graphic raconteur on the subject of medicine as practised in the 17th century. 

His assistant was a life-size "blow-up" of Samuel Pepys who in real life suffered from a bladder stone and underwent an agonising procedure to have this removed - all graphically and, for men, eye-wateringly demonstrated on the "blow-up" patient. 

Pepys' surgeon arrived with four large men he had picked up in a pub expressly to hold his patient down. Pepys was also offered anaesthesia "by mallet" but refused and kept his wig on throughout. He kept the stone to show to his guests.

Given the lack of diagnostic aids, doctors made the most of what was available to them, in particular, urine. 

They possessed urine colour wheel charts and had names for the differing shades: rhubarb blush; elephant's breath; pigeon's foot. David Bell said that it put him in mind of a Farrow & Ball colour chart. 

Then there was the smell, the taste - was it bubbly? frothy?

Doctors often based their treatments on the similarities they observed between a patient's ailment and the natural world. 

Thus celery reminded them of rickety legs, so they prescribed celery as a cure. The shape of ginger root reminded them of a stomach, so ginger was clearly the answer to an upset stomach.

David thought some prescriptions from former times may actually have provided chemical benefits: for example, bananas (first recorded for sale in England in 1633) provide serotonin which helps counter depression.

On a darker note David described the tragic experience of the Horton family, who had lived in his house in Eyam. All of the family died except the father when the plague was brought to the village in a bundle of second-hand clothes. In an amazing act of courage, the villagers isolated themselves from the world when they realised they were infected.

U3A Todmorden's next members' meeting will be on Thursday, September 20th, 2018 in the Central Methodist Church Hall in Todmorden. 

Our guest speaker will be Neil Smith, guitarist, raconteur and man of experience, whom members may remember from his entertaining and amusing previous visit. This time he will be telling us about his experiences "Beyond the Iron Curtain."

Our contact details are (website) www.u3atod.org.uk, (email) enquiries@u3atod.org.uk, or (phone) 01706 812015.

Many thanks to Anne Foster for this report


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