Saint Denis: the patron saint of headaches feels your pain

saint denis notre dame

Statute of St. Denis, Notre-Dame, Paris.

Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.

St. Gregory of Tours tells us that Denis was born in Italy in the 3d century A.D. In 250, he was sent as a missionary to Gaul (modern-day France), where he became the first Bishop of Paris.

Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.

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The T. rex and other bloodsucking leeches


There are between 700 and 1,000 species of leeches throughout the world.  Most prey on insects, snails and other small creatures.  Some swallow their prey whole.  Others have an extendible proboscis, which they use to spear their prey and suck up their juices.

And then there are the “bloodsuckers.”  These sanguivorous (blood-feeding) leeches feed on fish, reptiles, waterfowl, small mammals, earthworms (their closest biological relatives) and, yes — humans.  Sanguivorous leeches generally have either two or three jaws, which contain small teeth or a sharp cutting edge.  A bite from a two-jawed leech leaves a V-shaped bite, while that of the three-jawed variety results in a Y-shaped one.

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Ergot poisoning: the original Purple Haze

Detail of The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

Detail from The Temptations of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald, c. 1512-15

“[A] Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”  From the Annales Xantenses (857 AD).


It has been blamed for the Salem witch trials and the “Great Fear” of 1789,  which contributed to the French Revolution.  Its reemergence in the 20th century led to a treatment for migraine headaches and to the invention of LSD.

But in the Middle Ages, what we now call ergot poisoning, or ergotism, was a terrifying mystery known as “Holy Fire” (ignis sacer) because of the terrible burning pain it caused. Ergot — the common name for Claviceps purpurea – is a fungus that affects rye and other grains.  It contains ergotamine which, in moderate doses, causes the contraction of smooth muscle fibers, such as those in the small arteries.

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Chromotheraphy: the use of color to cure disease


Chromotherapy is a centuries-old method of treating disease.  In its original form, it was based on the theory that each of the body’s organs and limbs has its own distinct color. Disease was said to be the result of one or more of these parts not vibrating in harmony with its color.

Medical practitioners in ancient Egypt, Greece, China and India used chromotherapy. They prescribed both direct exposure to sunlight and, indirect exposure through stones, dyes, ointments and plasters.  In the Ayurvedic tradition, colors are held to correspond to the body’s seven major energy centers, known as “chakras.”  Chakras are also believed to correspond  to particular states of consciousness, personality types and endocrine secretions.

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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Trench Fever and “The Hobbit”

tolkien image


Generations of readers (and now moviegoers) have fallen in love with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  The novel — which is properly titled The Hobbit, or There and Back Again — tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero uprooted from his home to fight a war in a desolate landscape.  What many people don’t know is that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (born in S. Africa in 1892), based at least some of the book on his experiences as a soldier in WWI’s Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme is famous due largely to the staggering number of casualties over its four-month course. 58,000 British troops died on the first day of the battle — July 1, 1916 — alone.  The engagement would eventually claim the lives of some 420,000 English, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German soliders.  Tolkien himself lost two of his closest friends during the conflict.

Tolkien enlisted in 1915 as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and spent four months in the trenches.  At that point he fell victim to the typhus-like condition known as “trench fever” and returned to England.  He spent the rest of the war in hospital or home service camps, where he eventually recovered sufficiently to be promoted to lieutenant. Continue reading

You May Not Be a Cat, But You Can Still Cough Up a Hairball



Anyone who has ever had a cat is well-acquainted with hairballs.  But humans are susceptible to hairballs, too.

Technically, a hairball is a type of bezoar (pronounced BEE-zore), a mass of indigestible matter found in an animal’s stomach or intestines.   Ruminants (cud-chewing animals) — such as cows, oxen, sheep, goats, llamas, deer, and antelopes — are particularly susceptible to bezoars.

Human hairballs — known as “trichobezoars” – are rare in people with a normal digestive tract.  In adults, they usually occur in connection with a medical condition such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, renal failure, or a gastric resection.  Very rarely, trichobezoars can extend into the small intestine or beyond — a condition known as Rapunzel Syndrome.

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Did Copernicus “Invent” Buttered Bread?


It’s a story, oft-repeated as fact, that Nicolaus Copernicus — the early 16th-century astronomer who first proposed that the planets revolve around the sun – invented the practice of buttering bread.

Alas, it isn’t true. The Oxford English Dictionary contains a reference to buttered bread from 1496.  But it’s still an entertaining tale.

As described in Mould’s Medical Anecdotes , the story is that in 1520, the Teutonic Knights — a military order that was at war with Poland — besieged the fortified town of Allenstein in PrussiaCopernicus was put in charge of organizing the defenses of the town and its castle, which eventually repelled the attack.

Some six months before the siege was lifted, however, an outbreak of plague allegedly struck Allenstein Castle.  As a youth Copernicus had studied medicine.  He noticed that the elderly men that had been left to guard the castle frequently dropped bread on the ground as they carried it up the steep steps from the kitchen.  Suspecting this might have something to do with the spread of the disease, Copernicus divided the inhabitants into groups and allotted each a different diet.

The group denied bread was the only one that remained plague-free.  But refraining from eating bread during a siege wasn’t practical.  Someone suggested that if the black loaves were coated with a thin layer of churned cream, it would make it easy to detect when they’d been dropped.   If they had, the dirt could be wiped off.  Copernicus supposedly adopted the suggestion and plague was eliminated at the castle.

The idea of plague being transmitted via dirt isn’t totally far-fetched.  Medieval castles were notably infested with rats, and the bacterium that causes plague has been found to survive for up to 24 hours in soil.   It seems far more likely, however, the plague was spread by fleas living on the rats, which is the most common way that plague is spread.

After Copernicus’ death, the story continues, an official named Buttenadt leaked Copernicus’ secret.  The practice spread to other parts of Europe, where it became known as Buttenadting – or buttering.

And if you believe that, I’ve got a grail to sell you.

Dengue Fever and the Legend of Nimrod



According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 100 million people a year are infected with Dengue fever.  The flu-like illness causes high fevers, searing myalgia (muscle pain) and arthralgia (joint pain), and blood seeping through the pores.  These symptoms sometimes progress to massive bleeding, shock, and death (dengue shock syndrome, or DSS).

Denue Fever virus is borne by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito and related to West Nile fever and yellow fever.  Despite being primarily a tropical and sub-tropical disease, Dengue Fever periodically sickens people in the United States.

The word dengue may have come from ka-dinga pepoa Swahili phrases that translates to “cramp-like seizure caused by an evil spirit,” or “the devil’s disease.”  The first recorded case of probable dengue fever comes from China during the Jin Dynasty (265–420 AD), and refers to a “water poison” associated with flying insects.

Dengue epidemics occurred almost simultaneously in Asia, Africa, and North America in the late 18th century.  Benjamin Rush confirmed the first case in 1789 and coined the disease “breakbone fever” because of the severe pain it caused.

Dengue Fever may, however,  date back over 2,000 years.  According to the legend of Nimrod, Allah sent a mosquito to humble the arrogant leader.  The mosquito entered Nimrod’s brain through Nimrod’s nose, where  — depending on whose version you want to believe — it either began to eat his brain or to buzz incessantly.

The mosquito caused Nimrod severe pain and headaches.  Unable to stand it, Nimrod ordered his servants to beat him violently to distract him, or to split his skull open so the mosquito could fly away (again, depending on the version).

Either way, Nimrod died.