How Did Ancient Medics Determine the Medicinal Properties of Substances?

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Drew Smith:

For the most part, they didn’t. At the dawn of the age of scientific medicine (the mid-19th century) there were only a handful of remedies that we would recognize today as safe and effective.

But why? Our ancestors were not dummies, and did not require scientific methods to create sophisticated and effective technologies. The Romans built what is still the largest unsupported dome structure in the world 1800 years ago. Gunpowder, in concert with metallurgical advances, steadily developed from a Taoist elixir to a city-destroying technology by the 1600s. Sailing technology created worldwide trade networks even earlier. Scientific methods would have sped the development of these technologies, but were not required. Trial and error—plus lots of time—sufficed.

Yet traditional medicines largely suck. Hundreds have now been tested in clinical trials. Few show any benefit at all, and even fewer show a benefit comparable to modern scientific medicines. There is little evidence that the remedies of 1800 CE were any more effective than the remedies of 1800 BCE. Moliere’s quip in 1673 that “More men die of their medicines than of their diseases” was very much on the mark.

This is a mystery, at least to me. Unlike other sophisticated modern technologies, such as jet aircraft or telecommunications, medicines are largely discovered rather than invented. They don’t rely on an entire edifice of previous scientific discoveries.

In fact, effective medicines sometimes come and find us. The ancient Nubians drank a beer (more like a gruel, really) fermented by Streptomyces bacteria. It was so loaded with tetracycline that their bones fluoresce under UV light. Tetracycline is a very effective broad spectrum antibiotic that can be used to treat plague, TB, diarrheal diseases, and respiratory, skin, and urinary tract infections. Tetracycline beer, used judiciously, could well have slashed infant mortality, leading to a Demographic Transition in Central Africa in 400 CE.

But it didn’t.

The ancients were also capable of creating, not just finding, sophisticated medicines. Bard’s Salve, resurrected from a 10th century Saxon text, is an effective remedy for wound infection in mouse models.

More surprisingly, every component—and the precise process for producing it—is required in order for it to work. This is a clear example of an effective ancient medicine that answered a critical medical need. Its formulation was written down, allowing it to spread and be improved upon. Instead it was forgotten.

Why?

I’m sure there is no single answer, but I will posit this: In a Malthusian world, effective medicines were a liability, not an asset.

Up until about 1800, everyone in the world, to a first approximation, was a poor subsistence farmer. Despite substantial technological advances, like the ones I described above and many others, the standard of living of the world’s population advanced not at all. Any improvement in agricultural technology, such as the horse collar and improved plow designs, led to increased food production but subsequent population increases ate up any gains in living standards.

We think of historical plagues as disasters, but they were in fact a great benefit—at least to the survivors. Life expectancy increased after the Black Death of 1350:

So did wages:

Fewer mouths to feed and a scarcity of labor leading to increased bargaining power led to more resources per person and a more equitable distribution of those resources.

In our modern innovation-driven economy, we consider more people to be a good thing.

We fret that declining birth rates will cause economic growth to stagnate. But prior to 1850, a growing population meant growing poverty.

Saving lives—particularly the lives of economic sinks like small children—did not make societies stronger. This is not to say that parents did not mourn the loss of their children. They did. But societies operated under what was a reverse Tragedy of the Commons, where what was bad for the individual was good for everyone else.

I think our ancestors were perfectly capable of making effective medicines. They chose not to, not out of perversity or ignorance, but because those medicines would have caused more suffering than they prevented. Medicine was not intended to cure; its role was to provide comfort. It was a form of social support, not unlike religion. Looked at from that perspective, traditional medicines are very effective. They did exactly what their creators intended them to do. I’m not sure that we can always say the same today.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

What Is the Shelf Life of Donated Eyes?

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iStock.com/Pedro_Turrini

Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

I can only answer for cornea and eye donation.

The FDA does all oversight (no pun intended) of organ disposition.

The main organs—heart, liver, pancreas, lungs, etc.—are transplanted within hours. They are just not viable if they are not being perfused constantly.

The other tissues—like bone, skin, tendons, etc.—do not need to be transplanted immediately. But I am not sure on the regulations of when they need to be transplanted.

With the eyes, there are four tissues that can be recovered.

We recover whole eyes for research and education purposes. These usually go much faster, but we can hold them up to a year.

Conjunctiva can also be recovered; conjunctiva is a clear covering over most of the eye (it is what gets irritated when you have pink eye). I have been working as a recovery tech for five years, and our office has not had a request for "conj" in all that time. I believe it is mostly used for research, but I could be wrong.

Sclera is the white area of your eye. It is fairly thick and flexible. If you have ever touched a reptile egg, that is what it reminds me of. We recover sclera for transplant. They use it for several things, but mainly to patch punctures. Similar to if you pop the inner tube of your bike and repair it. Sclera can also be used to repair ear drums. We can hold on to this for up to a year.

The main thing we recover is corneas. In the U.S., we must transplant these within seven days of recovery. (Recovery is usually within hours of death, but we can push it up to 20 hours after if needed.) Sometimes we have more corneas than we need, and then they are shipped overseas and transplanted up to 14 days after recovery. There is no real different outcome with the later transplant time, but the FDA in the U.S. made the rules. (You can sign up to be an organ, tissue, and eye donor here.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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