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Friday, May 29, 2015

AD 32-79: Pliny the elder's contribution to asthma

Pliny the Elder had an intense curiosity and he yearned to know
everything.  His exuberant interest in knowledge was perhaps
lead him to write one of the most well read books of all time.
Gaius Plinius Secondus, better known as Pliny the Naturalist, Pliny the Second, or Pliny the Elder, was a Roman admiral, an encyclopedist, and an asthmatic who mentioned asthma-like symptoms in his book, "Natural History."
Russell M. Lawson, in his book "Science in the Ancient World: An Encyclopedia," wrote that Pliny was born in 23 A.D. during the reign of Rome's second emperor Tiberius. He was of the equestrian class, of whom the emperors relied upon for political support and to fill the many administrative positions. (1)
He served in the military as a provincial governor, and was head of the Roman fleet, a position he held at his death when mount Vesuvius erupted and he supposedly died of either asthma or heart complications in 79 A.D after he tried to help those who were trying to flee the volcano. (2)
Medical historian Thomas Lindsey Bradford, in his 1898 book "Quiz questions on the history of medicine," said that Pliny died because of his quest for knowledge. "He approached by vessel very near in order to note everything of importance concerning the phenomena. He passed the night not far from the mountain. The next morning the surrounding country became enveloped in a suffocating gas or vapor and he was killed by it." (11, page 36-37)
Yet by the time he passed he had already left behind a vast encyclopedia, providing historians an accurate view of history prior to and during his time. (8, page 37)
I think it was interesting to learn from Lawson that Pliny was a Stoic, which meant that he believed there was no after life, and this life was all a person had. Thus, perhaps for this reason, he slept little and spent most of his time writing. He wrote other books, but his most famous was Natural History. 

Lawson explained that Natural History is a "diverse collection of anecdotes, history, geography, medical information of varying worth, discussions of astronomy and earth science, and a catalog of Roman knowledge of botany and zoology." (3)

Russell further explained that because the book was filled with "interesting information and useful facts it became one of the most widely read books during the Late Roman Empire, Middle Ages, and Renaissance." (4)
Likewise, Russel said, Pliny based many of his studies on the writings of other physicians and scientists along with his own experiences, and when he recorded the observation of other writers such as Herodotus, Polybius or Alexander the Great, Pliny's descriptions were often better than that of the original authors. (5)

The book is mentioned frequently by other historians.
He mentions asthma-like symptoms in his book, yet he preferred to use Latin terms to describe dyspnea, shortness of breath instead of asthma. (6) 

Pliny wrote once that Rome had gone 600 years without physicians so why do we need them now. He wrote this in reference to Rome adapting Greek medical terms and Greek methods of diagnosing and treating patients.
Remedies he prescribed for asthma to "facilitate the respiration" were:  (7, page 344)
  1. Blood of wild horses taken in drink
  2. Asses milk boiled with bulbs
  3. The liver or lights of a fox in red wine
  4. Bear's gall in water
Other remedies included: (6, page 17)
  1. Oil of balsamum
  2. Rue combined with bitumen
  3. Pitched wines unless there was also a fever involved
  4. Chrysochola combined with honey is good for sore throats and asthma (8)
  5. Snails: Good for a cough and stomach ache, and a cure for asthma, fever, etc. (9)
  6. Vinegar (10)
Many of the magical cures, superstitions, remedies for physical illnesses described in Natural History were followed and used for over 2,000 years.

Pliny was a classic recorder and cataloger of events that occurred in his day, but he was also great at recording things he learned from others, either fact or hearsay, and likewise the wisdom of other great discoverers, writers, and explorers who lived before him.

It is for this reason he is described as encyclopedic, and, as Lawson said, one of the main reasons students of the ancient world "know of ancient writers and writings that would otherwise be unknown, save for Pliney's eforts."

  1. Lawson, Russell M., "Science in the Ancient World: An Encyclopedia," 2004, California, pages 190-192
  2. Lawson, ibid
  3. Lawson, ibid
  4. Lawson, ibid
  5. Lawson, ibid
  6. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: A Biography," 2006, New York, page 17
  7. Pliny the Elder, "The Natural Hisotry or Pliny," translated by John Bostock and H.T. Riley, Vol. V., 1856, London, page 344
  8. Bostock, John, "The first and thirty-third books of Pliny's Natural History; a specimin or proposed translation of the whole work with notes and etc," 1928, London, page 47
  9. Harmer, S.F. (editor), "The Cambridge Natural History," Volume III, 1895, Norwood, Massachusettes, page 120
  10. Lawson, Russell, op cit, page 190-192
  11. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey
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