This is part 4 of a series. You can read part 3 here.
Probably the strangest remnant from ancient medical beliefs still in widespread use today is that of the “medical” snake.
Nobody is quite sure how many thousands of years ago it first developed, but the Ancients were convinced that snakes could exude a magical and powerful “juice” from their mouths.
Today, we use the word “venom” to describe the “mouth juice” of a snake, but the modern connotation has evolved significantly from the original meaning.
The current definition of “venom” is a poison that is transferred from an animal (in our case, a snake) via a bite. But the original source of the word “venom” could also mean a “medicine” or a beneficial substance.
In other words, a snake’s mouth juice could either heal you or kill you, depending on the amount, which was, more or less, correct. Thousands of years later, our man Big Daddy P (Paracelsus) summed it up this way: the dose makes the poison.
In Ancient Greece, it came about that a skilled healer who knew the ways of snake juice became enshrined as the god of healing. We know him in English as Asclepius.
Temples dedicated to Asclepius became a kind of combination hospital and spa, also known in some parts as a sanitorium. People would go there (and pay) to get healed.
To reinforce their “brand image,” the Asclepius temples used a custom breed of a snake to slither around freely where the patients lived. When the snakes would brush up against a patient, that was seen as a blessing from the god and a sign that you would soon be healed.
Ironically, the snakes used in Ascelpian temples were completely non-venomous, meaning that they did not produce any magical mouth juice. And, as far as we know, Asclepian temples never even used any medicines derived from (real) snake venom.
Nonetheless, by Late Antiquity, the brand image of “snakes = healing” was permanently stamped on Western society.
Today, doctors tend to sport the Asclepius’s Staff symbol (one snake around a stick), ambulances and hospitals tend to use the Caduceus (two snakes around a stick plus some wings), while pharmacies use Hygiene’s Cup (a snake around a martini glass).
The unimpeachable World Health Organization uses a snake in its logo as well.
Lost in Translation
This “snake = medicine” belief grew even stronger during the time of the Ancient Roman Empire.
For one thing, the quack doctor Galen was a huge fan of Asclepius, and Galen is the man who singlehandedly dominated Western medicine for a thousand years.
Somewhere along the way, Galen started referring to the “juices” exuded by wounds on people’s bodies as “venom,” especially in the “poisonous” sense of the word (i.e. not a healing medicine).
Except that Galen didn’t speak English, so the word that he actually used was “virus,” which in Latin is an adjective meaning “from a snake’s mouth juice,” referring, of course, to venom.
If your skin is full of cysts, blisters, sores, pustules, buboes, or other disgusting bumps that exude a “juice,” then Galen called that those wounds virus.
Later, the adjective form in Latin became the noun form in languages like English, which then had to create a new adjective form – virulent.
When King Henry VIII of England developed suppurating wounds on his legs following a jousting accident in the year 1524, the wounds were said to be “virulent,” meaning “full of virus” although they weren’t actually caused by an infectious agent (and viruses had nothing to do with the situation).
Therefore, it wasn’t too hard to make the logical leap that coming into contact with the nasty “juice” from a person’s sores was a bad idea. And since that juice was called a “virus,” then it seemed patently obvious that “virus” and illness go hand-in-hand.
The Sins of the Fathers
Mind you, no one had any idea what a virus really was in those days. Nobody even suspected that it was a microscopic “creature” as the word “virus” predates the invention of the microscope by several centuries.
Doctors knew that “virulent” sores, pustules, and cysts were the outward symptoms of some diseases, but no one knew what was causing those diseases (the “influence of the stars,” or bad air, et al.)
Fast forward to Louis Pasteur deep in his lab in the 1800s, trying to figure out how to cure the “diseases” of milk, beer, and wine after making the discovery that microscopic agents were causing them.
But Pasteur had no idea that some of the infectious diseases that he was working with were actually caused by bacteria, some were caused by a fungus, some were caused by microsporidians (parasites), and some were caused by actual viruses.
Pasteur employed circular logic to leap to the conclusion that, since it was known that “viruses” were associated with infectious diseases, and since he could see identifiable microorganisms under his microscope when certain infectious diseases were present, the organisms that he was looking at must be “viruses.”
But now we know that there is a huge difference between an actual virus and a bacterium. There’s also a huge difference between a bacterium, a fungus, and a microsporidium. But we’ll get into all that in the next part of this series.
What’s important to remember is that Pasteur along with his colleagues such as Robert Koch are the “founding fathers” of modern immunology or the study and treatment of infectious diseases, predicated upon the belief that all microorganisms are fundamentally the same, collectively referred to as “viruses.”
And since all “viruses” are fundamentally the same, the way to cure them would be fundamentally the same.
And that was a very wrong assumption to make. Deadly wrong, as it turns out.
To be continued…