I saw the recent press briefing on television and, no matter how you parse his words, President Trump DID NOT recommend injecting disinfectants, such as bleach, into the body to fight the coronavirus.
He simply asked a question.
This is what actually happened: He turned to someone off camera, presumably his science advisors, and said, as recorded by the Washington Post: “I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets inside the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.”
To be honest, I don’t know what he meant. Let’s be fair, though, and say that, caught up in the urgency of the race all around the world to find a vaccine for the virus, and in the shadow of a potential “second wave,” perhaps he was only wondering out loud if a vaccine could be speedily developed that could clean the lungs “like” a disinfectant.”
It is to be expected that you will find differing opinions regarding medical issues we don’t understand, even among experts.
I remember attending Marine Corps field medical school, before Vietnam, out in the bush in the company of dozens of medical doctors, sitting around the campfire at night and listening to them argue how they would treat hypothetical cases.
I’m overstating here, but for the same diagnosis, some would amputate, and some would just give an aspirin.
After listening to them argue for several weeks, I decided that medicine was an inexact science, and to always seek a second opinion.
Maybe that’s why they call what doctors do the “practice” of medicine.
In any event, if you look back through history you find many examples of “unorthodox” ideas regarding both the cause and the cure of pandemic diseases.
From our vantage point, some of them might seem humorous; however, in the context of the times, they were deadly serious.
Let’s look at some interesting ideas about “cause” first.
One of my earliest memories is of my mama abruptly jerking me out of a ditch of running water where I was launching my matchbox boat down the “river.”
She, like many others, was afraid that “dirty water” caused polio.
Later, as a boy, I can remember a horror story in my community about a child polio victim who died when the rural power went out to the iron lung which kept him alive.
The whole world breathed a sigh of relief when Dr. Jonas Salk identified the polio bacillus and developed a vaccine to combat it.
Sophistication is no hindrance when it comes to worrying about the causes of deadly disease.
I can remember being in Mombasa, Kenya, which, at the time, in the late 1980s, supposedly had the highest incidence of AIDS infection in the world, and sitting in a ship’s wardroom listening to a discussion among highly educated, nuclear-power trained junior officers about whether or not mosquitos carried the AIDS virus.
Some refused to go ashore and even hated to go topside for a breath of fresh air.
On that same ship, which was nuclear-powered, the running macabre “joke” was that we were all going to eventually die anyway because of radiation sickness, even though we wore dosimeters which measured our exposure to radiation.
Exposure is measured in roentgens, and my weekly readings were consistently off the scale, probably because I slept one deck above the after reactor for three years.
The only way to lower your exposure was to leave the ship; but you couldn’t leave the ship because you would be AWOL (Away Without Leave).
I think there’s a joke about “Catch 22” in there somewhere.
Much earlier in history, during the Late Middle Ages, when the Black Plague was raging across Europe, many causes were attributed to this pandemic which killed an estimated 30 to 50 percent of the population.
Many of them seem “odd” to the 21st century mind: cosmic dust from outer space; God’s punishment for sin; a misalignment of the planets (the dreaded Saturn in the House of Jupiter effect); Jews poisoning the wells (an original conspiracy theory); taking too many baths (much later, for his health, Napoleon Bonaparte rarely bathed, preferring daily massages in French cologne each morning), etc.
While these are all interesting, let’s focus on just two others, the miasma theory and the imbalance of humors.
Medieval science did not yet know about the bacillus parasite carried on the backs of rodents.
It was widely assumed that the plague was spread through the air, as a miasma – an unseen, polluting cloud - from person to person.
If you believed that disease was caused by miasmas, for example, you tried to purify the air.
During outbreaks of plague between the 14th and 18th centuries, urban officials in Europe cleaned the streets of rotting rubbish, lit bonfires, and even fired guns.
Walled cities stopped travelers and burned soft goods that might harbor miasmas.
Plague victims were shut in their homes, lest their emanations infect others. Their doors were marked with red crosses, as a protection and as a warning.
A few tried to do more.
By the 15th century, the great Italian cities were creating “lazzaretti,” or pesthouses, to quarantine the sick during epidemics.
The one in Milan, Italy, would hold 16,000 people, crammed into small rooms with chimneys to vent noxious emanations. So much for social distancing.
Before you judge too harshly, you should note that we did a similar thing in Mississippi, on a much smaller scale, to control the scourge of tuberculosis.
Just up Highway 49, in Simpson County, you might remember road signs for “Sanatorium.”
The community was named for the Mississippi Tuberculosis Sanatorium, open from 1918 until the 1950s, and which was a hospital for TB patients.
While the stated objective of the hospital was “treatment,” I have to believe that a certain amount of quarantine to protect society was also involved.
Central Park in New York City, with its wide-open spaces, relatively speaking, was also designed by, in part, by someone who believed in the miasma theory.
Great effort was taken to ensure that the former swampland had proper drainage, and this was in the late 1850s.
Every time I think about Central Park, I have to laugh. When I was an enlisted man, between ships, I served a tour in the Armed Forces Police in downtown New York City.
The detachment was made up of personnel from all branches of the military.
For a month or so, I worked with this Army sergeant, senior to me, who would drive our squad car out into Central Park when we had the night shift, turn off the two-way radio, and go to sleep.
I, honestly, wasn’t that gung-ho, but I was afraid that we would miss an important call to break up a fight or something and get into trouble.
Fortunately, things were quiet.
Primarily, medieval physicians still followed the theories of the 2nd century Greek doctor, Galen, who attributed disease to an imbalance in bodily conditions or “humors.”
These included four bodily fluids: phlegm, (water), blood (air), yellow bile, (fire) and black bile (earth). Too much or too little of each humor would greatly affect one’s health.
Humoral balance was also influenced by one’s complexion or temperament. Physicians would look at the color of a person’s urine to determine their health, and then attempt to balance the humors by bloodletting, either through incision or through the application of leeches. Bloodletting got rid of hot blood, while blowing your nose or clearing your throat was a way to get rid of cold phlegm.
Mustard, mint sauce, apple sauce, and horseradish were used to balance wet, dry, hot, and cold in a person’s diet.
Most people today know that the primary bloodletters, actually the surgeons, of that era were also barbers, and that the red and white barber’s pole that you now see outside barber shops was a sign of the trade (red for blood, white for bandages).
One of the earliest books that Tim LaHaye, famous for his apocalyptic fiction series, “Left Behind,” wrote was “The Spirit Filled Temperament” (1966), and in it he talked about these basic humors and how God can use them.
Before he became a famous author, writing over 85 books, he founded a college in San Diego, Christian Heritage College, where my wife taught for several years.
In fact, she was the first woman professor to receive tenure there. It is now San Diego Bible College, and I taught some history classes there between sea tours.
The well-known author and television pastor, David Jeremiah, became president of the college while we were there.
While their methods might sound a little harsh to us, people who lived long ago were not dumb. For example, Anslem of Canterbury (1033 - 1109) is credited with ushering in the intellectual movement that came to be known as Scholasticism, an attempt to reconcile Reason with Revelation.
He also came up with what Immanuel Kant called Anslem’s “ontological argument for the existence of God:” “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Therefore, God exists.” (Assignment: Discuss the preceding argument. You have one hour and 1,000 words. Hint: existence is greater than non-existence).
Today, we know that modern antibiotics are the best cure for the plague, which still exists in Africa, Asia, and South America (a lady in California actually caught the plague in the 1980s when her lawn mower ran over a squirrel); however, this knowledge was gained by trial and error over long periods of time.
Just as the ancients believed in a myriad of causes for diseases they didn’t understand, they also had a vast catalogue of cures available, especially if one had money.
One of the troubling elements of the current pandemic is that it apparently affects individuals unequally along racial lines and regarding socio-economic status.
It was similar with the plague.
For example, in France, those in the “first estate” (clergy), and the “second estate” (nobility), of the old Ancien Regime (Ancient Regime) were not as adversely affected as the “third estate” (peasants and bourgeoisie).
Today, we think of the press as the “fourth estate.”
If you were poor and came down with the plague, your cure might consist of sitting close to a fire to drive out the fever; rubbing yourself with a chicken (?); drinking vinegar or eating crushed minerals, arsenic and mercury; or perhaps whipping yourself as a flagellant to appease the God who was obviously displeased with you.
The more affluent might procure the services of a plague doctor who might rub a concoction of onions, herbs, and chopped up snake on your chest or, if you were really sick, cut up a pigeon and rub it all over your body.
If you were lucky, you might get an enlightened physician like Nostradamus, who you normally think of in terms of prophecy, who prescribed the removal of infected dead bodies, getting fresh air, drinking clean water and, in contradiction to most of his contemporaries, did not believe in bleeding the patient.
There was also a fascination with snake meat. It was an important ingredient in theriac, one of the most expensive “drugs” available.
Some say this importance can be traced to the fact that the snake was the symbol and alternate shape of Asclepius, the pagan god of healing, perhaps the most enduring or all ancient gods.
Even today, you seen the snake depicted on the caduceus, the medical profession’s symbol of healing.
As we hopefully exit from lockdown, or “deconfinement” as the French would say, it’s obvious that people living in different eras saw things differently than we do.
Not that long ago, during the Romantic period, celebrated in English literature by such writers as Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth, travelers visiting the Lake District of England and the wild Scottish Highlands and hunting the picturesque landscape, took with them their “Claude Glass,” named after the landscape painter, Claude Lorrain.
Today, we would think of it as only a portable rear-view mirror. When the traveler encountered a likely vista, he or she would whip out their Claude Glass and manipulate it so that the reflecting scene formed a well-composed and framed “painting” which they could remember, leaving out the extraneous sights that might spoil the effect.
This idea was later turned around to the front and incorporated into the viewfinder of a camera, or at least the earlier camera obscura.
As a boy, I can remember my brother saying, “You don’t know how you look until you get your picture took.” During this time of universal crisis, I think we all need to look closely inside our “selves” and take a mental snapshot.
It’s not often that one gets the time, and the solitude, to look into an internal rear-view mirror and see ourselves as we really are.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com