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The Illusion of "Saving the World"

Ever wonder why the red and white striped pole is displayed outside many barbershops?  Neither have I.  Not until I stumbled across a morsel of obscure history about this symbol.  I was immediately drawn in.

In the middle ages surgeons and barbers performed most of the operations.  Yes, that’s right – barbers.  Blood-letting was the most commonly prescribed treatment of the day, a cure for almost every ailment.  Surgeons would order it, barbers would do the cutting.  The red-and-white-striped pole outside the barbershop was the signpost that blood-letting was performed here.  The red represents the blood being drawn, the white represents the tourniquet used, and the pole itself represents the stick squeezed in the patient’s hand to dilate the veins.   Interesting, eh?

What I found even more interesting, however, was that for more than 3000 years, from antiquity until the advent of modern scientific medicine, blood-letting was universally accepted as the most effective remedy for almost every disease.  It was recommended for the treatment of countless ailments ranging from cholera to cancer, tetanus to tuberculosis, gout to gangrene.  It was even prescribed to treat acne and hemorrhoids.  Before the circulatory system was understood, a prevailing theory was that blood could stagnate in the extremities.  A build-up of bad blood could cause all manner of maladies.  The cure was purging.

Every one bought in.  For eons.  Even in ancient cultures like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. The Talmud (ancient Israel’s sacred writings) specified certain days for blood-letting.  Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine) accepted the practice as good medicine some 500 years before the birth of Christ.  So did Socrates and Plato.  Early Christian writings offer advice on which saints’ days were favorable for blood-letting.  Well into the scientific era the practice continued to prevail.  The more blood drawn the better, even to the point of losing consciousness.  Many sessions would only end when the patient began to swoon.   1799 George Washington, suffering from a throat infection, requested that he be bled heavily (nearly four pints) and died shortly thereafter.

One typical course of medical treatment began the morning of 13 July 1824. A French sergeant was stabbed through the chest while engaged in single combat; within minutes, he fainted from loss of blood. Arriving at the local hospital he was immediately bled twenty ounces “to prevent inflammation”. During the night he was bled another 24 ounces. Early the next morning, the chief surgeon bled the patient another 10 ounces (285 ml); during the next 14 hours, he was bled five more times. Medical attendants thus intentionally removed more than half of the patient’s normal blood supply—in addition to the initial blood loss which caused the sergeant to faint. Bleedings continued over the next several days. By 29 July, the wound had become inflamed. The physician applied 32 leeches to the most sensitive part of the wound. Over the next three days, there were more bleedings and a total of 40 more leeches. The sergeant recovered and was discharged on 3 October. His physician wrote that “by the large quantity of blood lost, amounting to 170 ounces [nearly eleven pints], besides that drawn by the application of leeches [perhaps another two pints], the life of the patient was preserved”.  

“The life of the patient was preserved” by draining thirteen pints of his blood?!  Outrageous!  Sounds totally absurd today.  But is it any more absurd than the widely accepted practice of draining off the strength of able-bodied adults by “curing” them with dependency-producing subsidies?  Can we legitimately claim to be “preserving the life” of the needy by weakening their capacity to become self-sufficient?   And how absurd is it to measure the effectiveness of our remedy by the volume of recipients who return for repeated “treatments”?

Is harmful medical treatment better than no treatment at all?  The French sergeant who survived the blood-letting would doubtless answer “yes”.  His surgeon acted upon the best knowledge that was available at the time.  Is harmful charity better than no charity at all?  Recipients would doubtless urge its continuation.  But just as it took centuries of malpractice before the medical profession finally realized that blood-adding, not blood-letting, actually saves lives, so charitable malpractice may have to run its course.

Bloodletting persisted into the 20th century.  Not until Pasteur (1822-1895) figured out that germs, not bad blood, cause diseases did the practice begin to fall out of favor.  It took many more decades before the practice was finally abandoned.  The modern science of microbiology finally brought a 3000 year practice to an end.  I can’t help wondering how long it will take the tradition-steeped compassion industry to recognize the need for a fundamental change of practice.  

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Bob is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through FCS Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community.