Staying in the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu, Paris


 Hôtel-Hospitel Dieu

I lay in bed, staring at the flood-lit towers of Notre Dame. The sky-light in my room looked straight onto the cathedral. Founded by Saint Landry in 651 AD, the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu was the first hospital in Paris, and still cares for ill Parisians. The ghosts of some 1300 years of medical history glide along its marble corridors, whispering in consultation outside the wards, then pass into the old-fashioned lifts to visit the fourteen quiet hotel rooms hidden on the sixth floor.

Hotels can be seen as merely a place to sleep, or they can be another layer in all the experiences of travel. They don’t have to be expensive (fortunately!) but as I love pre-dawn and evening strolls, and watching a neighbourhood change by the hour, I try to pick a place to stay somewhere interesting for my walks. If the hotel comes with its own history, is in a old part of town and has a great cafe or restaurant nearby (hello, Paris!) it’s hard to resist. The Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu offered it all.

Continue Reading →

The Physicians of Myddfai – 13th C Welsh Medicine


Typical medicinal garden

Medieval Medicine: Rhiwallon of Myddfai 


       Rosemary is useful as a lotion when a man is threatened with insanity. It is an excellent remedy for the stranguary, stone and catarrh. For swelling and pain in the legs, bruise rue, honey and salt. Apply thereto and it will disperse the swelling.

In the early 13th century, Rhys the Stammerer (warrior son of the Welsh Prince Rhys ap

Gruffydd), became Lord of Dinefwr and Llandovery castles. This title granted the right to call to his service a doctor from amongst his freeholders. Under Rhys’ patronage, Rhiwallon and his three sons, Cadwgan, Gruffydd and Einon, established a medical dynasty; the last of their line, Rice Williams, died in 1842. The gravestones of two other descendants, David Jones (d.1719) and John Jones (d.1739), stand in the parish church of Myddfai (in Carmarthenshire, south western Wales). Continue Reading →

Medical English II


I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountants, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse.

                        Frederick the Great of Prussia                  SCAN0008 8.52.01 PM


Knee appears by 900AD, coming from the Old English cneo, or cneow. These words derive from the Proto-Germanic knewan, from the Proto-Indo-European geneu (an ancestral language of the Indo-European family, dated to roughly 5,500 years ago). From geneu arises the Latin genu, giving words such as genuflect (1630) and geniculate.

Curiously, knee-cap (the noun, not the verb associated with gangsters) doesn’t appear until around 1870, yet knee-high to a grasshopper was first recorded in 1851. The term the bee’s knees became popular in the early 1920’s, as did the bee’s nuts and the flea’s eyebrows.

On the 28th March, 1814, Lord Byron penned in his diary:

Yesterday, dined tête-à-tête at the Cocoa with Scrope Davies… drank between us one bottle of champagne and six of claret, neither of which wines ever affect me. Scrope…was tipsy and pious and I was obliged to leave him on his knees praying to I know not what purpose or good.

Praying, of course, can lead to Parson’s knees. The term Wii knee was first used in 2007 for injuries caused by exuberant playing of Wii games. Wii wrist, Wii elbow and Wii hip soon followed.



  Continue Reading →

Sint-Janshospitaal: A Medieval Hospital in Bruges

The canals of Bruges (c) A. Harrison
The canals of Bruges (c) A. Harrison

“We were highly delighted by our visit to the Hospital of St. John’s. It is a Gothic edifice of ancient structure. The sick lie in a large apartment, which is supported by Norman arches and pillars. The Sisters of Charity attend upon the invalids; and everything appears in that state of order and excessive neatness, so admirably conspicuous in this town.”

Charles A. Stothar, English antiquarian, in a letter to his mother 20th Sept 1890

I first saw Sint-Janshospitaal while cruising along the canals of Bruges. The wall running along the The Groenerei (or Green Canal) is in classic Flemish style: ivy-covered stones, a roof stepping against the skyline. Tall gothic windows looked over the water. In medieval times this wing doubled as both a chapel and a ward (for since spiritual healing was considered more important than healing of the flesh, a chapel stood inside the open ward). The wash from our barge lapped against the weathered stones and landing stage, where a door opened onto the water.

Continue Reading →

Medical English I: Origins & Idiosyncrasies

I speak French to my ambassadors, English to my accountants, Italian to my mistress, Latin to my God and German to my horse.

                        Frederick the Great of Prussia              SCAN0008 8.52.01 PM                       


Since the evolution of language some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, the history of language remains largely oral; only in the relatively recent past has a written record existed, allowing for a conditional dating of words. Hence, when a word first appears in those documents which have survived can be pinpointed, the word itself – and consequentg derivations – may have been used for centuries.


Appearing by 700AD, salve is one of the earliest medical terms recorded in English. Homer described their use for treating wounds in The Iliad, and Galen listed their ingredients. The legendary wealth of the Greek city of Laodicea was in part derived from Phrygian Powder, an eye salve combining olive oil and phrygian stone.

Continue Reading →

The Poisons of Agatha Christie

Medieval medicine - treatment and death

Foul Toxins From The Queen of Crime

“Poison has a certain appeal,” wrote Agatha Christie in They Do It With Mirrors, “…it has not the crudeness of the revolver bullet or the blunt instrument.” Death by poison is more frequent in Christie’s world than in the works of any other mystery writer. More than thirty victims fall foul to a variety of toxins (while others survive attempted poisonings.) Christie’s knowledge was extensive, a result of her work as both a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser during both World Wars. (Perhaps this is why physicians often make an appearance as murders in her novels.)

Continue Reading →