Sunday 20 August 2017

Dr Maurice Gueret: Bunkum takes root

Don't believe everything that you're told about the supposed benefits of eating certain foods, advises Maurice Gueret

Belarussian farmers harvest the mangel in their field
Belarussian farmers harvest the mangel in their field

Maurice Gueret

Being a city boy, I had never heard of a mangel. Until the other day, that is. A reader, who grew up in 1950s rural Wexford, tells me that every farmer in his area used to grow a root crop called mangels. It was a member of the sugar-beet family and was used to feed milking cows during the winter.

They were reckoned to be very nutritious, especially after calving. Mangels were sometimes pulped and mixed with bran, the mixture reckoned to have great human laxative properties. My correspondent tells me that some folk substituted them for turnips in their dinner because turnips taint the taste of homemade butter. He says that, in recent times, farmers began to study the food value of animal feeds, and it was discovered that mangels had little feeding value. Apart from their laxative qualities, they were just big lumps of water.


Which brings him nicely to the story of his neighbour, Dan, a confirmed bachelor farmer. Dan lived in an old farmhouse with two big ground-floor rooms. When you entered, the room on one side was the living area and kitchen, and the room on the other was known as the parlour. The parlour was rarely used, except to entertain the village doctor, priests or other visiting dignitaries. One stormy night, Dan's roof collapsed, part of which covered the parlour. His solution was to repair the main living area and ignore the rest. A neighbour later asked him if he intended to repair the whole house, and Dan's response was that there were three things in this world in which he had no interest – women, parlours and mangels. Nobody argued with him – he practiced what he preached.


A meeting was held over the winter involving the Adelaide Hospital Society, a group that continues to espouse the independence of thought and practice that this old Dublin institution was renowned for. A report on the proceedings landed on my desk recently, and my eyes were drawn to the comments made by the hospital consultant, who drew the very short straw of having myself as his first intern after the summer graduations of 1988. The cardiologist, Professor Ian Graham, is as thoughtful now as he was then. He chaired this meeting on hospital governance, and a few of the points he made deserve a wider airing. He summed up the meeting by saying that the primacy of the patient, rather than the system, is what is required. He said that Ireland seemed to be a nation that was more comfortable with publishing reports and recommendations than with implementing them. And he called a spade a spade, by stating that two factors militate against all effective health planning – the four-year political cycle, with a wish to retain power at any price, and the power of veto of local politicians. No better man to get to the heart of our problems.


I do love to get letters from pharmacists, young, middle-aged and retired. The nice ones, anyhow. One Dublin lady chemist tells me that, when she trained, a man kept coming in with a medical card prescription for Leotone Tonic and a bottle of Dettol. Not every month, but every week. This frequency aroused her curiosity so, one day, she drew him aside and asked quietly why he needed so many bottles of both. His answer is one that she has never forgotten. "Sure, tis the greyhounds, Mary." She asked if they bite him. "Ah, Jaysis, no! The tonic makes 'em run faster, and the Dettol's for cleanin' up the yard after 'em!" I reckon some cutbacks could not come fast enough. Mary also tells me a traditional remedy given to children in west Limerick by their mothers was three feeds of nettles every May. She argues mother knew best. The children hated them, but the ones given them never got a teenage spot!


A reader who hails from the district of Stoneybatter, in central Dublin, tells me of a popular remedy during his youth called Dr Collis-Browne's Chlorodyne, which he thinks might have originated in India. He says it once cured his bad cold and left him with a pleasant, euphoric feeling. And, indeed, it may well have. Chlorodyne was a concoction of laudanum (an opiate), some cannabis and chloroform. The 'mixture' was invented by Dr John Collis-Browne, a British surgeon in the Indian army, and was originally used in the mid-19th Century on cholera patients – not, perhaps, as a cure, but maybe to palliate their dying symptoms. Collis-Browne later went into partnership in England with a chemist called Davenport, and, with some hefty advertising, it took off as a remedy for almost everything. A plaque was once erected in the doctor's hometown to honour him, and the event was described in a poem: "A crowd there was in Ramsgate Town, To honour Dr Collis-Browne Whose Chlorodyne saved countless chaps, From having untoward mishaps."


Alas, Chlorodyne did not have as happy an ending as the doctor. It was very addictive, and overdoses – accidental or otherwise – featured in many coroner cases over the years. Addicts would sometimes heat it on a spoon to get their pure dose of opium. Pharmacists would make up their own, cheaper generic blends of the product, substituting ingredients or reducing the amount of others. The cannabis was removed and the concentration of morphine was usually kept just below the stipulations of ever-changing dangerous drugs' legislation. In 1974, doctors at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London published a seminal paper suggesting that there were as many as 1,000 addicts in the city. They surveyed 48 pharmacies and, from the 15 replies they received, the scale of the problem with off-prescription morphine became clear. It spelled the end for Dr Collis-Browne's remedy. Countless chaps saved from even more mishaps.


Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the ‘Irish Medical Directory’

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