'Cures' kill king

11th March 2005 at 00:00
If you ever feel inclined to count your blessings, here is one to add to the list. Be thankful that doctors no longer believe in blood-letting. The idea that releasing pints of the red stuff would cure illnesses persisted until the 19th century, and claimed many lives.

One notable victim was Charles II, who, on a winter's morning in 1685, collapsed in a fit probably caused by a stroke. The doctors were called - and then he was really in trouble. The first physician to arrive drained a pint of blood from the king's arm. The next doctor, after consulting six others, took another half pint.

Charles stirred, which was seen as a good sign. So the doctors induced vomiting, and gave him an enema. Clearly what was inside needed to come out. But their patient remained unconscious.They gave him another enema and then a laxative. Next they shaved his head and smeared it with blistering plasters to encourage urination. Charles then regained consciousness, proving to the doctors that their medicine was working. Time for some more.

Another emetic was administered to bring up bile, sneezing powder was stuffed up his nose to release phlegm, and pigeon dung stuck on his feet.

Then he was given a laxative which would have kept him on the loo all night.

The king had now endured 12 hours of treatment. He was weak and thirsty, but he was, surprisingly, still alive. The top medic returned in the morning with 11 others. They opened the veins in Charles's neck and drained off half a pint of blood. The next day the poor monarch had another fit which earned him another bleeding plus 40 drops of pulverised human skull. The day after that he got the whole works again, bleeding, enemas, emetics, laxatives...

By now he was pale as flour and sinking fast.

The doctors were puzzled and upset. Maybe they hadn't bled him enough. They went to work with their buckets and knives. Then they forced down his throat an "antidote" that "contained extracts of all the herbs and animals of the kingdom". Then they bled him again.

Charles slipped gratefully out of their clutches the next morning.

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