1905: Gas the over 60s, says leading doctor

Sir William Osler (1849-1919) was a Canadian-American doctor, academic and medical pioneer. The son of a British naval officer and a pious Christian woman, Osler was born in Ontario and educated in Toronto, Montreal and London. In the 1880s be became chief of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding member of the Association of American Physicians. In 1889 Osler relocated to Baltimore and became a co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. He remained at Johns Hopkins for 12 years, overseeing its rapid growth and evolution into one of America’s foremost medical research facilities. In 1905 Osler accepted the Regius Professorship at Oxford University. Just before embarking for England he delivered a controversial farewell address to the Johns Hopkins alumni, in which he suggested that the most important work was done by younger folk:

“The effective, moving, vitalising work of the world is done between the ages of 25 and 40, these 15 golden years of plenty, the anabolic or constructive period in which there is always a balance in the mental bank and the credit is still good.”

In contrast, Osler argued, people over 60 had outlived their usefulness and were only capable of producing “evil mistakes and drivel”:

“It can be maintained that all the great advances have come from men under 40, so the history of the world shows that a very large proportion of the evils may be traced to the sexagenarians… Nearly all the great mistakes, politically and socially, all of the worst poems, most of the bad pictures, a majority of the bad novels, not a few of the bad sermons and speeches.”

Osler’s solution drew on the writings of Anthony Trollope. Men (and only men, as he considered elderly women a “good influence” on society) should be subject to compulsory Logan’s Run-style euthanasia, once they hit the age of 60:

“The uselessness of men above 60 years of age and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political and professional life [if they were to] stop work at this age… the plot hinges on the admirable scheme of a college into which, at 60, men retired for a year of contemplation, before a peaceful departure by chloroform.”

doctor osler
Doctor Osler

The popular press seized on Osler’s proposal and hounded him for the best part of a year. Great presidents, philosophers and inventors in their 60s were held up as potential victims of Osler’s program. “Oslerization” and “Oslerizing” became synonyms for euthanasia. Some newspapers queried whether Osler, who was 56 at the time, would volunteer to lead the way into compulsory chloroforming. Osler’s suggestion was tongue in cheek, of course, something he later pointed out – however his negativity about older people, their lack of productivity and resource-sapping uselessness was certainly well documented. Osler himself died in 1919, aged 70, from influenza and pneumonia. Ironically, he once described these diseases as “friendly” to old people because of their capacity for a relatively painless death.

Source: William Osler, “Ageing and the Fixed Period” (address), Baltimore, February 22nd 1905.

1791: Naked earth bathing cures all, says doc

earth bathing
An artist’s depiction of Dr Graham’s earth-bathing establishment

James Graham (1745-94) was a Scottish-born quack physician, notorious for his alternative treatments and bizarre theories. Graham started a medical degree in his native Edinburgh but quickly dropped out of college. He lived in Yorkshire for a time, then spent several years traveling and working in North America and Europe before settling in London. Tall, handsome and eccentric, Graham became a popular figure in London society. As a physician he specialised in sexual problems, though his ‘treatments’ were highly unorthodox. Childless couples were told to make love on a mattress filled with stallion hair; barren women were advised to wash their genitals in champagne. In 1781 Graham both scandalised and fascinated London by unveiling his new premises, the ‘Temple of Hymen’ in Pall Mall. The showpiece of this temple was Graham’s ‘Celestial Bed’, a gaudily decorated vibrating bed that promised great improvements in love-making and conception. Later in the 1780s Graham promoted his theory of ‘earth bathing’, where patients were stripped naked and buried up to their necks in fertile soil:

earth bathing

According to Graham these long stints in the “all-fostering bosom of our original mother” opened the pores and leached toxins from the body. ‘Earth-bathing’ was considered good for many ailments but was particularly effective for curing venereal disease, gout, scurvy, rheumatism, leprosy, cancer, insanity and numerous types of infection. ‘Earth-bathing’ also suppressed the appetite, claimed Graham, so the obese were urged to bury themselves up to the lips, for up to six hours on end. Graham himself ‘earth-bathed’ hundreds of times, usually as a public spectacle. Scores of Londoners handed over a shilling to watch Graham and an equally-naked female companion being interred in a garden bed. Graham’s ‘earth-bathing’ fad lasted until the early 1790s, by which time he had started to show signs of insanity, possibly the result of opium addiction. He returned to Scotland, where he died in 1794.

Source: The Times, October 14th 1791.