The history of Mesothelioma is complicated. Medicine struggled to establish its existence and understand what caused it. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that forms on the “tissues that cover the lungs and abdomen.” Mesothelioma is typically tied to the exposure of people to asbestos in either their environment or workplace. If asbestos exposure leads to mesothelioma it is extraordinarily serious, because it is an incurable and typically fatal type of cancer.
Asbestos has been widely used by humans because it was extraordinary fire resistance and could be woven in fabrics. Unforunately, this has put humans into close contact with asbestos for over two millennia. Asbestos is comprised of fibrous silicates that are resistant “to thermal and chemical breakdown, tensile strength, and fibrous habit” that makes it possible to be “woven into textiles.” It is not clear when humans first began using asbestos, but it has been used for at 2000 years.
While it took a long time for mesothelioma to be connected to asbestos exposure, it was well known that people could develop asbestosis. Asbestosis was caused by the scaring of the lungs by asbestos fibers. Asbestosis was caused by long-term exposure and while incurable it can in many cases be treated. Unlike mesothelioma, it was not necessarily fatal. Still in severe cases, patients may need lung transplants. Mesothelioma, on the other hand, is almost always fatal.
In late August 1872 in New York City, a young pregnant woman named Alice Augusta Bowlsby read an advertisement in the newspaper for a Dr. Ascher. The advertisement stated that Dr. Ascher could help “[l]adies in trouble, guaranteed immediate relief, sure and safe; no fee required until perfectly satisfied; elegant rooms and nursing provided.” Bowlsby went to Ascher’s office where he performed an abortion. Bowlsby died from Ascher’s botched abortion, and her tragic death provided an opportunity for New York’s organized Regulars to open the debate for medical licensing.
Bowlsby’s death captured the attention of the New York Times and the New York Herald because the details of her death were incredibly salacious. After Bowlsby died, Ascher attempted to hide the woman’s death by shipping her body in a ramshackle trunk to Chicago by train. After an alert railroad employee searched the trunk, police authorities were quickly contacted and conducted an autopsy on the body. The coroner determined that the young woman died from several “severe lacerations” that “had been sustained in the attempt to affect an abortion.” The police quickly ascertained the identity of the young women and tracked down Jacob Rosenzweig, a 39-year-old Polish physician. The police learned that Rosenzweig practiced in New York City under the name Dr. Ascher.
Early medicine developed in a number of societies, both in the New and Old Worlds, as populations around the world were able to quickly learn that plants that grew around them often have natural healing qualities and health benefits. Several regions around the world, which had early complex societies, have left us evidence or documents that describe some of the relatively sophisticated medical techniques or practices that developed at early dates.
Egypt and Mesopotamia arguably developed the first true urban and complex societies anywhere. As these societies were literate at an early date, we also obtain relatively early information about important medical knowledge already known in the ancient world.
In both Mesopotamia and Egypt, healers or what are equivalent to physicians had exists probably by the 3rd millennium BC. However, these early physicians were often priests who integrated their healing practices with medical techniques as well as religious practices, including prayers or even forms of exorcisms.
The Edwin Smith papyrus (ca. 1600 BC; Figure 1) is a famous example that is the first known text to deal with traumatic injuries, perhaps even battlefield wounds. It also deals with dislocations, tumors, and bone fractures. The text provides diagnoses of different injuries and ailments, where the physician, unlike most other Egyptian texts, proceeds with a more scientific approach. The physician seems to understand the concept of a pulse and diagnosis of specific ailments; different treatments are prescribed such as bandaging, suturing the wounds, and stopping the bleeding.
Before 1870, medicine in the United States was completely unregulated. The lack of regulation and the limited effectiveness of 19th century regular medicine encouraged the development of multiple competing medical sects during the century. The three largest medical sects were regulars(traditional physicians), homeopaths, and eclectics. Even though these three sects were the most prominent, numerous other medical systems were created and survived on the margins. Eclecticism, osteopathy, chiropractic medicine, and hydrotherapy are just a few of the medical sects born during this era of United States history. At the very end of the 19th Century, a new medical system called naturopathy was created by Benedict and Louisa Stroebel Lust. Unlike many of the 19th Century medical sects created, naturopathy has persevered to this day. Naturopathic healing was founded and based on number of influences including botanics, hydrotherapy, eclecticism, temperance and vegetarianism.
John Hopkins University Press has published a new book by Susan E. Cayleff about the history of naturopathic healing entitled Nature’s Path: A History of Naturopathic Healing in America. Her book is a comprehensive account of both the origins of the naturopathy and examination of the controversial views by held naturopathic practitioners such as anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination, and the dangers of processed foods, pharmaceuticals and environmental toxins. Interestingly, women played a role not just in the creation of naturopathy, but were critical to its development and survival into 21st century. Cayleff’s book is an intriguing addition to the medical and social history of the United States.
Susan E. Cayleff is a professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. She has written Wash and Be Healed: the Water Cure Movement and Women’s Health, Wings of Gauze: Women of Color and he Experience of Health and Illness, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharis, and co-authored with Susan Stamberg – Babe Didrikson: The Greatest All-Sport Athlete of All Time.
Nineteenth-century medicine was characterized by constant competition among three major medical sects: Regulars, Eclectics, and Homeopaths. Each of these medical sects not only meaningfully disagreed on how to treat illnesses and diseases, but sought to portray their type of practice as the most effective and scientific. Arguably none of the three sects was superior to the others, but their adherents concluded that their sectarian beliefs were better than their competitors.
Regulars were the inheritors of Galenic tradition and were the largest and most established of the three sects. Homeopaths represented a new approach to medicine with a new unified medical system developed in the eighteenth century. Homeopaths were quite successful in the United States and represented the biggest threat to the Regulars’ dominance of medicine. The Eclectics were true to their name. They were a diverse sect composed of dissident Regulars, herbalists, and medical reformers. While the Regulars were the largest sect, their members constantly worried that they may lose their place at the head of the table of American medicine. In the later portion of the 20th century, Regular physicians would constantly lobbying state legislatures to create medical licensing to solidify their place as the preeminent medical sect. Read more at DailyHistory.org.