Thursday, December 6

Nostradamus might have had a degree in medicine, after all

For background see my December 4 post, Nostradamus versus The Miasma. For those who saw the earliest versions of the post, yes I kept fiddling with it, even after final revisions, to include changing the title to better reflect where I was headed in the writing.

It's been quite a journey for me. All I'd known about Nostradamus before a few days ago was that he was famous for predictions that were highly controversial. The controversy, still with us, has overshadowed his work as a physician who specialized in treating bubonic disease, and  with considerable success.

But was he a certified physician? The sources I looked at while writing the earlier post indicated that he wasn't. Last night I returned to the question and found this:  

From the Medical Bag's short biography of Nostradamus:
At the age of 14, he enrolled in the University of Avignon to study medicine and become a physician. His studies there ended after 1 year due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. He then became an apothecary and extensively researched herbal remedies. In 1522, he enrolled in the University of Montpellier to pursue the completion of his degree in medicine.
There are conflicting reports with respect to the completion of his doctorate. Some evidence suggests that he was expelled from the school due to his work with herbal remedies and the school’s dim view of anyone who was involved in the apothecary trade. Other accounts state he was never expelled and became licensed to practice medicine in 1525.
Ironically if not for his notoriety as a prophet it's likely Nostradamus's innovative approach to treating victims of bubonic plague would have barely registered a footnote in the history of plagues that swept Europe for centuries. As it is, we have only small pieces of a story that when fully told might earn him a more prominent place in the annals of medicine.

Nostradamus did not write an autobiography or an account of his years researching herbal cures to combat plague. And to my knowledge neither he nor Louis Serre, a prominent physician he teamed up with to combat a major bubonic plague outbreak in Marseilles in 1545, wrote about his experiences combating plague. Once the fire in Marseilles was put out "he then tackled further outbreaks of the disease on his own in Salon-de-Provence and in the regional capital, Aix-en-Provence." There doesn't seem to be an account of those battles, either, unless historians have been remiss.

Better translations of his known writings on medical topics might throw more light on his work as a plague doctor. As Wikipedia's discussion notes,
Most academic sources reject the notion that Nostradamus had any genuine supernatural prophetic abilities and maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus's quatrains are the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations (sometimes deliberate).[8][...]They also point out that English translations of his quatrains are almost always of extremely poor quality, based on later manuscripts produced by authors with little knowledge of sixteenth-century French, and often deliberately mistranslated to make the prophecies fit whatever events the translator believed they were supposed to have predicted.
From contradictory accounts that I highlighted in the earlier post, it seems the same problem applies to translations of his medical writings.  

But enough survives of Nostradamus' approach to dealing with bubonic disease to raise the conjecture that he didn't accept or at least questioned the miasma theory of disease, which dominated medicine in the West (and China it seems as well) for centuries before and after his era.

He might have reasoned that because a miasma didn't infect everybody when it appeared in a region there was a factor in play with bubonic infection other than poisoned air. I'll go further and speculate that the more success he had with the use of rose hips in curing victims of the bubonic/pneumonic disease, the less stock he might've put in the miasma theory.

By the way, given the traditional uses of the rose hips fruit for medical conditions --  "It was used for the bites of rabid dogs, stomach complaints, menstrual problems and diarrhea" -- it's unlikely he found its use as a bubonic-fighter in a herbalist manual. It seems he fixed on rose hips through his years of researching plants for a cure for the bubonic disease. But from what I've read thus far, which granted isn't much, it seems all that's recorded about the question is that he was an experienced medical chemist ('apothecary'), and that he spent years researching plants for their healing properties. 

As I noted in the earlier post, it's almost eerie that he fixed on rose hips to combat bubonic disease given that one of the fruit's properties is Vitamin C, which wasn't discovered until the 20th Century. And the fruit's other nutrients, which give a synergistic boost to Vitamin C's bacteria-fighting ability, were probably discovered quite late in the last century and maybe into this one.


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