P is for Physician

Although women and female family members did most of the hands on and practical work of heath care in the Medieval and Tudor period, I have to think that physicians doubtlessly earned their salary. Not only were they excellent astronomers and very competent herbalists, they were also the guys who had to examine, smell, and taste the patient’s urine in order to make a diagnosis.

This medical obsession with urine wasn’t always as useless as the modern mind would imagine. There were indeed diseases that could be accurately diagnosed from the condition of (as it is euphemistically called by many people) pee-pee.  For example, purple or blue urine indicated (and still indicates) porphyria. The urine of patients with diabetes mellitus has a sweet taste, due to the sugar in their excreta. Unfortunately, this was a death sentence for the patient since there was no way to treat Type I diabetes until 1922, and even in the modern era the illness was likely to cause a radically shortened lifespan until very recently.

Jaundice would not only turn a patient a yellowish color it would also turn the individual’s pee dark orange or even red. The treatment for jaundice was often ineffective in and of itself, since it consisted of instructions to “boyle a quart of sweet Milke, dissolve therein as much bay-salt or fine Saltpeter, as shall make it brackish in taste and putting Saffron in a fine linen clout, rubb it into the Milke, until the Milke be very yellow; and give it the patient to drink.”

As crazy as urosocpy appears to us today, it HAS had at least one lasting effect on medical science. I am sure you have seen, in popular media images of science labs if nothing else, the distinctive Erlenmeyer flask:

Erlenmeyer flasks are shaped the way they are because they are modelled on the specialised glass beakers that were made for urine analysis. The shape simply became traditional for medical and generalised lab equipment after a while.

Coincidentally, my father and several of my friends are doctors. The next time any of them are very tired, or have gotten very irritated with people coming in to the hospital emergency room to try to con them out of narcotics for false pain at 3:00 AM, I am going to point out the bright side — at least they are no longer required to swish and spit their patients’ urine. That should chirk them up a treat!

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