Lesson #414: Medieval Testicle Removal

A coworker brought me to this lesson when she told me that people in medieval times believed that the left testicle was responsible for female children and, consequently, had a gonadectomy of the left testicle to help ensure a male child.

I know what you’re thinking. That is patently absurd! Sources or GTFO!

Sources for this are…awful. At best, this is a gobbet passed around the interwebs with some uncited small basis in historical fact. More likely, this is the same complete bullshit as the idea floating about the internet that the boiling point of saliva is three times that of regular water.

The best information I can find on this is a single sentence reference to it in a larger response on a page of The Tech Museum of Innovation’s site. But if we look at this logically, it doesn’t make any sense. Even if a bunch of men in medieval Europe — this is an assumption based on the fact that the medieval period in the Eastern world is far more advanced than Europe is — had their left testicles removed, statistically speaking, they still stood a 50% chance of coming out with a female child at the end of gestation. Surely people with some brains would have gotten together and said, “so…that didn’t work” and stopped with the lopping off of testes.

Obviously, I don’t have access to any primary source materials. But lots of places with lots of scholars do. And if there were primary source materials that said, “for a while there, we thought we’d get all boys if we castrated ourselves”, that information would be all over the place. Because the west loves to talk about balls. So let’s just go ahead and take this for what it is — a story that seems good for a light chuckle on the surface while it simultaneously disparages medieval culture for being seemingly lacking in common sense and enforces the patriarchal and historical notion that female children are worth less than male children.

So we’re in agreement then? We’re going to settle on the fact that men in medieval Europe didn’t go about removing a testicle so they could have male children. Cool? Cool.


Lesson #389: Syphilis Will Make Your Nose Fall Off

Turns out, my knowledge of what syphilis will do to a person is lacking. Because I have had exactly zero instances in my life wherein I have ever needed to know. You guys…untreated syphilis will make your nose fall off. Which is freaking bonkers!

Strangely, this piece of information came up twice today in a very short span of time. Once in an episode of The Young Doctor’s Notebook, which I finally got around to on Netflix after I read the series is based on stories by Mikhail Bulgakov*, and once in last night’s episode of The Knick. Thankfully, I’d watched the former before the latter, so when a character showed up with no nose at the start of the latter, I knew exactly what was going on before I was told.

In any event, the technical term for what is basically the implosion of the nose (before it rots off…also common in leprocy, by the way) is saddle nose. You can read all sorts of fun stuff about the cosmetic reconstruction procedure used on The Knick here. It’s really quite interesting.

And they say television will rot your brain.

*who wrote one of the greatest dissident/satirical Soviet era Russian novels, The Master and Margarita.

Lesson #387: Amok

Because you probably don’t live in isolation, you’re likely familiar with the phrasal verb “to run amok”. Our friends Messrs. Merriam and Webster have four related definitions for amok. The second, the one we know best, “in a wild or uncontrolled manner”, is of Malay origin and dates to the early 1670s.

However, the earlier (1665) definition,  “a murderous frenzy that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture”, is apparently a thing that still exists that is bound almost entirely to Malaysian culture, but has also shown up in cases in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. It’s a rare madness — and is therefore classified as a mental illness — where someone will just completely lose his (or her) mind and causes serious bodily harm or straight up murders someone for no reason.

I can’t be the only person to notice that all three of these places are islands, right?

You can read more on Amok here.

M-W definition here, Etymology here.

Lesson #385: Malaria

As Liverpool didn’t play until this morning, I invited our Tanzanian friend out to the clubhouse with us for the first match of the new football season. Afterwards, we stopped by our local for a pint and got to talking about the work he’s doing. He’s over doing a year of his PhD work at the School of Public Health, in which he’s working on shortening the length of time a mosquito can transmit malaria — he said right now it’s about six days; he’s working with a team to cut that in half. Which meant he had to explain all the basics of malaria to me because my knowledge of malaria was two points. It’s transmitted by mosquitos, and it’s treated with quinine.

I learned all sorts of cool stuff. First, that malaria’s symptoms are flu-like, which can make it hard to diagnose. Second, that your body will develop a tolerance to it over time. Because he grew up in Tanzania, he’s had malaria many, many times and, as a result, when he contracts it, it feels more like just being a bit fatigued and generally just kind of off for a few days. Whereas, as I’ve never had it, so it would knock me on my ass for a week. Third, that while you can develop a tolerance, being unexposed for an extended period of time — as he will be for the year that he’s here — means that your body forgets how to deal with it, so he admits he’s in for a rough go when he gets home.* Fourth,  the mosquito isn’t the host for malaria, humans are; the mosquito is just the vehicle. The parasite that causes it gets processed by the mosquito’s system in such a way that it moves from the blood the mosquito has consumed from an infected host up into its salivary glands so that when it next feeds, it will infect a new host. It’s a genius system, really.

Anyway, you can read all sorts of fun stuff about malaria — like the the fact that it kills more than 600,000 people every year (!), that there are four different strains, and that it takes quite a long time (usually 10 – 15 days) for symptoms to develop after a bite — from the WHO and CDC here and here, respectively.

*This explains why our Togolese striker missed the North American tour after contracting malaria while he was home during the offseason.

Lesson #375: Kalaupapa’s Leper Colony

Years ago, before I started this blog, I was having a conversation with a friend about leprosy in the Bible and we got to talking about how you never hear about lepers anymore. So I did some digging and found that there were roughly 400,000 people living with Hansen’s Disease, the clinical term for what we call leprosy.* It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that most of these cases are found in rural India and sub-Saharan Africa. Well, it turns out that America still has its very own leper colony.

Sort of.

On the Hawaiian island of Molokai, there’s a small village that is populated entirely by people who had leprosy. The colony was set up on the orders of King Kamehameha V in 1866, who, after leprosy arrived on the Hawaiian islands from China, issued an edict banishing anyone diagnosed with leprosy to the Kalaupapa peninsula. Over the course of a hundred years — the law was repealed in 1969 — Kalaupapa was home to about 8,000 exiled patients who were diagnosed with leprosy. As of 2008, there were only 24 remaining residents, all of whom have since been cured.

Today, you can tour Kalaupapa National Park, which contains the village of Kalaupapa, but you are still required to obtain a permit before you visit.

Fun fact: the only other animal on the planet that can contract leprosy is the aardvark. Do not ask me why I know that.

More here, here, and here.

*For the WHO fact sheet on leprosy, see here.

Lesson #292: Measles

I’m off to the beach with some friends for the long weekend, so won’t likely post again until Tuesday.

I, like pretty much every other infant in North America and Western Europe, was vaccinated against measles when I was very young. Until today, I knew literally nothing about it except that I was immunized when I was very young.

Today, I learned that measles is one of the most contagious diseases in the world. People who have not been immunized and are exposed to the disease, which is literally spread just through breathing (and sneezing and coughing, but serio*…just breathing is enough to spread it!), will almost always contract it. There are an estimated 20 million cases of measles every year and it kills about 187,000** people every year, of whom more than half are Indian.***

2011 saw a significant upswing in measles cases in the US. The average number of cases is 60/year, but there were 222 (an incidence rate of 0.7/million) reported cases in 2011, of which 112 were associated with 17 different outbreaks. Of the 222 cases, 200 were linked to foreign importation — meaning they contracted the disease either while abroad or from foreigners who brought it with them while visiting. 86% of the patients were unvaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status.****

*This is the Polish word for “seriously” and both The Swede and I found it incredibly useful and started using it regularly. Especially in arguments because it sounds much nicer to say “SERIO?” than “ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME?!?” (Don’t worry, our arguments were about footie, so no one went to bed angry.)

**The CDC page gives the number of deaths as 200,000 and 174,000 in two separate paragraphs on the same page, so I took the mean of the two.

***More information on measles here

****More statistical information here