Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fjordman: The History of Medicine and the History of the Calendar

Fjordman has two new essays, and below are some excerpts. First, at Europe News, A History of Medicine, Part 5:

The canning of food was invented in the early 1800s by a French confectioner named Nicolas Appert (1749-1841). He placed food in champagne bottles, corked them loosely, immersed them in boiling water and hammered the corks tight. This practice preserved the food for extended periods, but neither he nor his emulators who later perfected the preservation of food in tin-plated canisters knew why this technique worked; it’s a textbook case of an applied technology without any theoretical basis. Louis Pasteur knew of Appert’s work, but his scientific methods and careful experiments succeeded in convincing many skeptics. The optimal temperatures for the preservation of various foods with minimal damage to flavor were worked out by two scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA, Samuel Prescott (1872—1962) and William Lyman Underwood (1864—1929) in 1895-96. Their work represented a milestone in the development of food technology and food science. Appert’s method of cooking the food to a temperature far in excess of what is used in pasteurization can easily destroy some of the flavor.

And at Atlas Shrugs, The History of the Calendar:
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Writers praising the science of ancient Egypt will often start with the pyramids. There are dozens of pyramids, indeed more than one hundred in Egypt alone. The earliest is the so-called Step Pyramid at Saqqara, designed by the polymath Imhotep for Pharaoh Djoser (reign ca. 2630—2611 BC), but the most famous examples are the ones at Giza outside the city of Cairo, the pyramids of Khafre, Menkaure and the Great Pyramid of Khufu. The pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops in Greek) was the tallest man-made structure in the world for almost four thousand years, until Lincoln Cathedral was completed in England around 1300 AD. The Great Pyramid is visually impressive, to be sure, but it’s a stunt and represents more of a triumph for organization than for science. Contrary to popular belief, the ancient Egyptians were not too sophisticated in mathematics compared to their contemporaries in Mesopotamia. Their most lasting achievement lay in the medical sciences. Since these were continued by the ancient Greeks, it is possible to claim that the Western medical tradition begins with the Egyptian medical tradition. Among the Egyptian mathematical achievements, by far the most influential was their solar calendar, which, admittedly with many later modifications, formed the basis for the Gregorian calendar which is used internationally today.

More on both will be found at Europe News and Atlas Shrugs.

8 comments:

Fjordman said...

I will probably republish the full history of medicine here at some point, with a few changes from the first five posts. I think I can make a conclusion by now: The first civilization in human history to establish a truly scientific understanding of both the human body and the real causes of diseases was European civilization. I haven't seen any indication that any other nation or culture was close to achieve a similar breakthrough independently. The one exception I can find is the case of an early use of general anesthesia in Japan in the beginning of the 1800s. But this was inspired by Western medicine, through translations from Dutch, and it didn't have any long-term effects outside of Japan or even within Japan itself. By the year 1800, surgery was extremely painful and dangerous anywhere in the world. By 1900, it was fully possible to undergo a major operation in a relatively painless and secure manner.

Technically speaking, the development of general anesthesia and of antiseptics were two separate events, but they happened within a few decades of each other in the West. General anesthesia by ether or chloroform was related to advances in chemistry and had been established while there was still powerful opposition to the germ theory of disease. The germ theory was proved after substantial scientific and technical advances in microscopy during the nineteenth century. Improved microscopes also made it possible to study the actual composition of the human body down to the cellular level, chromosomes, genes etc. By the mid-twentieth century it was possible to see individual virus particles following the invention of the electron microscope, which was again achieved after massive advances in physics and other branches of science. Most modern hospital equipment runs on electricity, yet only European civilization, as far as we know, ever invented the battery, the dynamo and the generator.

Not all medical advances were necessarily dependent upon better technology, though. Theoretically speaking, a person in India, Korea, Vietnam or Egypt could have done the studies on inheritance that Mendel did, yet nobody outside of Europe actually did that, at least not that I am aware of. If somebody did, he was a lonely genius whose work was not followed up by others. The remarkable thing about Europe and the Western world at this point was not only that gifted individuals made new discoveries, but that these discoveries were shared and followed up by other gifted individuals. This is far from self-evident, as those reading about for instance Chinese scientific history would know.

Ex-Dissident said...

Baron and Fjordman, I disagree with the claim that late 18th and early 19th century Europeans invented canning as a method of food preservation without having any theoretical basis for their work. Although the germ theory was not well established yet, the idea that germs might play an important role in illness was known. Pasteur proved that bacteria caused milk to spoil, but he did not originate such ideas. Friedrich Henle (1809-1885) was one of the early defenders of the germ theory and a contemporary of Appert.
That said, the scientific advancement of western civilization is entirely due to being able to disperse the breakthrough work of individuals, to the masses. That is why the fight to preserve our knowledge, achievements, and our way of life is so critical. Failure will doom us to another dark age.

Lex said...

At least get Tuesday right next time.

The Sphinx said...

Lex, I'd forgive Fjordman for his "Tuesday" error, if it weren't for this:

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"The first civilization in human history to establish a truly scientific understanding of both the human body and the real causes of diseases was European civilization."
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Fjordman, for somebody attempting to claim any expertise on the history of medicine, you perform extremely poorly. I could demonstrate this with the Greek example, or the Egyptian one. However, to your utmost misfortune, the most defying and impressive counter-example to your claims comes from the Medieval Muslims.

Maybe it's just me, but this Wikipedia article alone puts your entire claim through a wall. It should interest you, being the qualified historian you are. Let's see..

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"The one exception I can find is the case of an early use of general anesthesia in Japan in the beginning of the 1800s. But this was inspired by Western medicine, through translations from Dutch, and it didn't have any long-term effects outside of Japan or even within Japan itself."
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Yeah, only here's another exception:

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General anesthesia and general anesthetics were pioneered by Muslim anesthesiologists, who were the first to utilize oral as well as inhalant anesthetics. In Islamic Spain, Abu al-Qasim and Ibn Zuhr, among other Muslim surgeons, performed hundreds of surgeries under inhalant anesthesia with the use of narcotic-soaked sponges which were placed over the face. Muslim physicians also introduced the anesthetic value of opium derivatives during the Middle Ages. Laudanum was also used as an anaesthetic. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote about its medical uses in his works, which later influenced the works of Paracelsus."
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The Persian Ibn Sina happens to have lived from around 980 to 1037, and Paracelsus, the Swiss Physician lived 500 years later. Thus, no matter how many civilizations were inspired by European achievements, you have failed terribly in finding out who the Europeans took as inspiration.

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"Most modern hospital equipment runs on electricity, yet only European civilization, as far as we know, ever invented the battery, the dynamo and the generator."
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Well, even that's quite debatable if you ask me.

And while we're fighting over who invented canned food, let's take a quick glance at the inventions by medieval Muslims, some of which even surprised me.

Luckily for you, I'm rather short on time, otherwise I'd elaborate more on the factual errors you're selling us. My main point in a nutshell though is that you should have a slightly better memory that goes back more than only 200 years, and realize that the European civilization - with all it's great achievements - wasn't the first to do some serious work.

Either you're just unaware of this fact, which would be fine if you weren't shamelessly plugging your compendium of human development, or you are uncomfortably concealing the facts to whoever is unlucky enough to read your oddly biased treatise on why Europe is above all, which I would describe as an academic crime.

Either way: It's back to the history books with you.

Fjordman said...

Lex: Tuesday IS correct. What's supposed to be wrong with it?

Sphinx: I actually believe medicine was one of the stronger points of ancient Egyptian science, which influenced Greek and thus Western medicine later. I am aware that certain types of anesthesia were in use for thousands of years, as I also stated, but general anesthesia as we know it today was a product of the nineteenth century.

I choose to write about medicine because practically all human cultures had some form of healers or physicians, which makes it possible to compare the level of medical knowledge. I couldn't compare the level of knowledge in, say, electrodynamics, thermodynamics or the study of subatomic particles since these sciences didn't exist before nineteenth century Europe.

I've never said that we exist in a vacuum. We got knowledge from other cultures, but the advances in medicine, which are linked to advances in other sciences, in the modern West were nevertheless several orders of magnitude beyond what any other civilization had achieved before. And yes, a truly scientific understanding of the human body and of diseases was the product of European civilization.

Lex said...

Just for my part, NO, you didn't get Tuesday correct. Your comparative Germanic is pretty lousy for a Scandy. I could go into the subtleties between the deities themselves as understood by the varying peoples of the times, as in Tyr and Tiw meant different things to different peoples, but lets leave it to just the English history. You are writing at least here mainly for the inheritors of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, please at least get their pre-Christian deities correct.

As for the rest, Sphinx can bat you around for a bit.

The Sphinx said...

I don't think it's exactly wise to compare achievements of cultures that lie just about a millenium apart, and you said it yourself:

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I couldn't compare the level of knowledge in, say, electrodynamics, thermodynamics or the study of subatomic particles since these sciences didn't exist before nineteenth century Europe.
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And for exactly this reason you cannot compare the shared science of medicine of the different ages, simply because modern medicine would be nowhere near what it is without the advances in physics you just described.

Imagine you'd hand the ancient Egyptians an x-ray machine, the ancient Greeks magnetic resonance imaging, or give the medieval Muslims an electron microscope. In short: What would those great scientists I showed you be capable of if they had the scientific models and tools we had today?

Or what if you had sent the European scientists from the last two centuries back in time to the middle ages without the head start they have. Would they be able to pull off what the Muslim scientists have done under the same circumstances?

These are questions you can't really answer, but it's necessary to ask them. Because right now, your line of logic sounds like the one of a young working professional who's boasting that his salary is higher than the one of his parents, even though it's clear that this is due to inflation.

Anonymous said...

And the Spinx wins several internets today.