Friday, April 22, 2011

Myth & Medicine

If you really want to experience something of Venice as it was 400 years ago just get into a discussion of health with a local. Immunology, microbiology, virology, all of these remain as foreign to most Venetians' thinking about illness and health today as they would have been to Titian.

Recently a virus has been making its way through our son's scuola materna; half his class has been likely to be absent on any given day. Yet last week when Sandro came down with the fever and all the other symptoms his peers have been manifesting and had to be kept home from school for three days my wife's friends were unanimous in tracing the pathology to two hours he spent playing on the Lido's beach one day after school. It was windy that day, and the wind gave rise to the fever.

My wife objected that their own kids (in the same scuola materna) had also had the illness. Well, yes, the mother of one admitted, her daughter had gotten it from being too long in the sun one day. She had not gotten sunburned, nor any color at all from the exposure, but the child wasn't used to the sun yet and thus the fever. The other mother offered no explanation for her own daughter's illness, but stubbornly adhered to the too much wind/sun diagnosis for the other kids.

My wife mentioned something about viruses as the cause of illness: her listeners enjoyed a good laugh.

And so it goes here... I haven't had so much exposure to something like the ancient science of the four humors since the Shakespeare course I took in college. One day in February at the height of flu season  we mentioned to our very intelligent well-traveled neighbor that Sandro had been up vomiting the night before. He nodded sympathetically and said, "Ah, yes, his stomach must have been exposed to a cold draft while he was at school."
This summer when we go to the beach with Italian friends we are steeling ourselves to confront "The Three Hour Rule." This is a theory--no, wait, the law--that states that any child who enters the water less than three hours after eating lunch will die almost instantly. A friend insists upon this law and has even, at our urging, explained its scientific basis, which goes something like: if a child enters cold water while his or her stomach is still occupied with digesting lunch the swift change of temperature will instantaneously cause a fatal congestion in the stomach, causing all of his or her other organs to also instantly seize up and cease functioning.

Our friends are completely in earnest about this; absolutely nothing we say will change their minds.

Yet the same parents who keep the toes of their children out of water for three hours after eating allow them to ride bikes and scooters without helmets. And in the very same country where an emergency alarm cord dangles above every public toilet and in every single shower, you can't find a single smoke alarm (though the number of lives saved by smoke alarms has been well-documented).

It's funny, and sometimes exasperating, but, alas, as an American I have no room to be smug. For if you ever want to experience something of life in America as it was lived 120 years ago amid the most destitute and unschooled of shoeless, toothless dirt farmers you need only ask almost any contemporary American in a mall--or Republican politician--about the origin of life on earth. Well over half of them (61% according to a recent Gallup poll) are likely to tell you that old Charles Darwin was full of beans and that God, wearing a long white beard, created the earth wholesale in 6 days exactly 10,000 years ago. They are also likely to reveal a stubborn belief that the earth is the center of the universe, regardless of the work of that famous resident of the Venetian Republic, Galileo.


  1. Lovely post, Steven. I just received a FB reminder than Jen's b'day is this week and found my way to your blog through a post of her's. As you probably know, we've moved to NZ... and, as you can imagine, often come upon similar scenarios (though not quite as extreme!). Anyway, it's good to hear you're doing well. S is gorgeous (like someone took the two of you and combined them!) Take care up there and enjoy Spring! -Sarah

  2. So nice to hear from you, Sarah, and thank you for the kind remarks. Would love to hear of some NZ ideas about medicine--email J. Best to all of you way down there.