Healing the Spiritual and Physical

In colonial America, your minister often provided succor to those afflicted in faith and fever. Ministers were usually the most educated people in a community so it made sense that they would be entrusted with medical care as well. Not to mention that so little was known about disease and its causes that fusing religion and medicine made as much sense as any other theory (and probably more so to the deeply religious American colonists). As historian Richard D. Brown put it, “even the most rational and learned individual..saw no clear boundary between physical and spiritual phenomena.” The joining of these two roles, however, was not without its complications.


Cotton Mather, one of the most prominent Puritan ministers in New England, introduced smallpox inoculation in 1721, a move that ignited a fierce debate in the Puritan community. Puritans believed that every affliction was proof of God’s special interest in their affairs. Some suggested that smallpox (a serious and deadly threat in colonial America) was perhaps God’s punishment for sin and that to interfere with that through inoculation or anything else would only anger God and provoke more punishment. Mather did not waver, though. He wrote that “whether a Christian may not employ this Medicine (let the matter of it be what it will) and humbly give Thanks to God’s good Providence in discovering of it to a miserable World; and humbly look up to His Good Providence (as we do in the use of any other Medicine) It may seem strange, that any wise Christian cannot answer it. And how strangely do Men that call themselves Physicians betray their Anatomy, and their Philosophy, as well as their Divinity in their invectives against this Practice?”Eventually, inoculation did gain widespread acceptance. 


The spread of print and increased literacy helped bring elite medicine to the masses through home medical manuals. Many ministers as well as their followers had copies of some of the most popular manuals, including William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1769) and John Wesley’s Primitive Physick (1747). 


Wesley, better known as the founder of Methodism, was extremely interested in the democratization of medicine. Believing that medicine and doctors were often only accessible to the wealthy, he wrote his own medical manual to allow anyone to easily treat themselves. Wesley considered making medical knowledge and treatments available and comprehensible to the public was part and parcel of his pastoral duties. 


The minister-doctor predominated until at least 1750 and continued on to the early 19th century in some areas of the country. It was only with the rise of medical education, apprenticeships, and licensing laws that  the two forms of healing separated. But ministers continued to play an integral role in healing, particularly in many of the alternative health movements (homeopathy, hydropathy, osteopathy, etc) that flourished in the 19th century.

Poland Rising

How did the Irish get so popular? In the 19th century and even into the early 20th, the Irish were decidedly not a favorite immigrant group. They were often poor and, more damning, Catholic, a major strike against them in a very Protestant United States. The Irish were stereotyped as hot-headed drunkards, uncivilized and unskilled. Political cartoons were widely used to express negative opinions about Irish immigrants. And yet something changed…

Today, everyone wants to be Irish. There are stores selling Celtic this and that all over the country, Irish bars, and Irish music festivals. Maybe it was sheer numbers. Millions of Irish came to the United States so their influence became impossible to ignore. And they didn’t remain poor and unskilled. Many became politically, economically, and religiously powerful in their new country. John F. Kennedy–Irish and Catholic–probably had something to do with it, too.

All of this leads me to the Poles (and myself as I’m a quarter Polish). Why haven’t the Polish experienced this renaissance of opinion? Poles were often poor and Catholic, too. They didn’t come in quite the same numbers as the Irish but most settled in urban areas like the Irish, especially heavily in the Midwest. Chicago today bills itself as the largest Polish city outside of Poland. And yet Poles are often still the butt of jokes rather than a beloved culture. Everyone I know who has been to Poland raves about its beauty and culture, but rarely do you see a special issue of Conde Nast Traveler or Budget Travel telling you where to go now in Poland.

Southwest Poland, near Jelenia Gora

It all makes me want to start a Polish rehabilitation project.  Someday, maybe we’ll all start wearing purple on Polish Independence Day (November 11th, for those who haven’t already marked their calendars).

History = War

What counts as history? And why is the answer for so many people one war or another?


As someone who writes about history, I often hear from people how much they love history (and to clarify, it’s almost always an adult, usually male, aged 50+), especially the Civil War or World War II. Those are important and fascinating events in history, but I often wonder why that’s the only history that people seem to know and care about–why it’s the only history that seems to matter.


In part, I blame The History Channel. Or as I like to call it, the channel of never-ending war. It’s battles and technologies of war (how guns work and who invented the cannon) or stories of great generals and war heroes. Reading a review of a new history book in the New York Times this weekend, the reviewer hit on what I think is one of the main problems with the way history is depicted on TV:


This may be realism, but it is History Channel realism, where the rawest facts of combat on the ground become the only facts that really count. Entertaining anecdotes abound, but there are more descriptions of mangled bodies than information or insights about strategy.

That’s it exactly. The spectacle overshadows the actual context and motivations behind it. I get it, I really do. I know that battles are exciting and that draws people in. But that’s not what history is ALL about. And I think that’s why I grow weary of hearing about the Civil War or World War II, not because they aren’t pivotal historical events, but that the battle scenes, often the only glimpses we get and often the only ones we seek, become the dominant (and only) story. Ideas are exciting, too. Ideas are what led to the bloodshed yet that piece doesn’t get the same attention even though it is the explanation for it all. 

And much of history has nothing to do with war at all. Most of history, as Bill Bryson said in his new book At Home, consists of people going about their daily lives, cooking, sleeping, and bathing. I realize that on its surface, our domestic lives are no where near as exciting as a pitched battle between heroes and villains. But really, it’s all a matter of presentation. War may have an inherently interesting package so it’s easy to present, though I might argue that the package is often missing the ideas and the critical thought behind it for the sake of explosions, confusing the real importance with the flashy front. 

And maybe why you don’t hear as many young people proclaiming their love of history or why history books aren’t marketed as Mother’s Day gifts as they are for Father’s Day, is because the history of battles and war isn’t as relatable as how people like you and me went about their daily lives to these groups. That’s not the whole reason, but it’s one element that I think plays a significant role. 

I continue to wait for the day that someone tells me they love history and follows it up by saying, “especially the utopian movements in the 19th century.”



Giving Fruitcake a Good Name

There are few gifts more vilified, more dreaded or ridiculed than fruitcake, which is too often mass produced with cheap ingredients. Who doesn’t join the laughter when a coworker opens the gleaming, bejeweled brick of cake at the office gift exchange?

It’s a shame, really, because fruitcake, at its best, is a delicious mix of dried fruits and nuts, bound together by sugar, flour, eggs, and spices. Most of us only know the cake at its worst, rock hard, laced with day-glo candied fruit and bitter citron. Liberally bathed in alcohol, a fruitcake can last more than ten years, a fact that only adds to its supernatural horror. No wonder people in Manitou Springs, Colorado toss them every winter during the Great Fruitcake Toss.

The idea of making cakes with dried fruits and honey dates back to ancient times. Fruitcakes were a means of food preservation. Not only could fruits be conserved, but they could be served out of season, when fresh fruit was unavailable. Egyptians considered fruitcake an essential food for the afterlife (and some of the cakes could outlast you), while the conquering force of the Roman legions was fruitcake-powered.

The fruitcakes we know and… well, love… came from the Middle Ages, when sweet ingredients like honey and spices became more widely available. The arrival of cheap sugar in Europe from the colonies, beginning in the 16th century, resulted in a flourishing of sweet, fruitcake-like breads, including Italian panettone, black cake (common in Jamaica and Trinidad), dreikonigsbrot, king cake, babka, and my personal favorite, stollen.

Stollen… yum

So what makes something a fruitcake? The fruit-to-cake ratio is pivotal. Anything less than 50% fruit is not really a fruitcake. The fruitcakes from Swiss Colony in Monroe, Wisconsin, contain around 75% fruit and nuts.

And despite what you commonly see in grocery stores, candied fruits in colors that suggest some kind of nuclear disaster are not obligatory and should be avoided. Naturally sweet, dried fruits are the key to turning fruitcake hate into love.

The fruit and nut to cake ratio appears right but those colors only
reinforce fruitcake’s poor reputation.

Alcohol allows for long-term storage and also helps to mellow the sweetness of the ingredients. Fruitcakes actually do taste better with age because the dried fruit contains tannins, like wine, that are released over time to create complex flavors and aromas.

Like all things, fruitcake can be great, amazing even, done right. Don’t let the imitations fool you.

What’s so heroic about "heroic medicine?"

Heroes don’t usually make you bleed or vomit. You’ll never see Superman fight evil doers by lancing someone or forcing large doses of calomel down Lex Luther’s throat.

And yet “heroic” was what medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries was called. At least the medicine practiced by so-called “regular” doctors through at least the mid-19th century (those who didn’t practice heroic medicine were known as alternative or sectarian practitioners–or in unkinder moments, quacks).

Heroic medicine consisted of bleeding, purging, leeching, blistering, and sweating patients to release disease. Calomel, mercurous chloride, was one of the most commonly used mineral concoctions, a harsh treatment that would induce vomiting and purging. At the time, most diseases were seen as systemic imbalances caused by something being either over- or under-stimulated in the body. Until the 1840s, most doctors believed that diseases overstimulated the body so most treatments involved lowering the overexcited patient back to a normal, healthy state. Bleeding often became the first “therapeutic” line of attack, being a seemingly easy way to get whatever disease was poisoning the system and knocking it out of balance back into place.

Heroic medicine gave clear evidence that it worked. Or at least that the treatment was doing something–and that something was often healing in of itself. People felt better just knowing that they were being treated, even if that treatment could sometimes kill them. It also gave the doctor the appearance of being in control of the situation. There’s just something about doing that feels a whole lot better than waiting and watching for nature to run its course, as it often does in disease. The body is an amazing healing machine.

So why heroic? The word apparently comes from the large dosage size and effect of the therapies. They didn’t just give you a bit of calomel. They gave you A LOT to produce a near instantaneous effect–which, in this instance, was mostly a lot of vomiting. According to the dictionary, “heroic” is “behavior that is bold and dramatic.” These treatments certainly were bold and the results often dramatic if not always healing.

But they were also rather harsh and public outcry against them helped lead to their demise in the 19th century.