This article was originally published in the Mayo Clinic "In the Loop" blog.
As someone famous famously wrote, the course of true love never did run smooth. The same can be said of history, Chris Boes, M.D., tells us. "People see past as prologue to the future, and envision history as a straight line." But that's not the case, according to Dr. Boes, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. "It's full of stops, dead ends, and curves. It's not a linear line. Progress is complicated."
That complicated journey is just one of the reasons Dr. Boes finds history so fascinating. Another? "It teaches you humility," says the good doctor, who also is director of the W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine at Mayo Clinic. "Even Osler made mistakes," he says, referring to William Osler, M.D., widely regarded as the father of modern medicine. Dr. Boes recently noted one of those (likely) mistakes in his publication "Gowers and Osler: Good Friends 'All through,'" which earned him the Lawrence C. McHenry Award from the American Academy of Neurology. The essay focuses on the mutually beneficial friendship between Dr. Osler and William Gowers, M.D. It also notes that Dr. Osler believed Dr. Gowers had ataxic paraplegia, a diagnosis that was later questioned.
You can't help but notice when talking to Dr. Boes that for him, studying history is just plain fun. Take, for example, a discovery he made a few years ago during one of his regular visits to an area antique shop: a bottle of Schuster's Malt & Hop Liquid Food, a "medicinal beverage" made by a Rochester brewery in the late 1800s. The label suggested the drink was recommended by medical professionals, claiming that it gave "great strength to nursing mother and her baby," and was "a boon to those of overworked brains, shattered nerves, and no appetite." A 1897 article in the Rochester Post newspaper indicated it was given to patients at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys campus.
Dr. Boes was intrigued and "took this as a challenge to see if I could find any proof" that the brew, with "about as much alcohol as a Bud Light," was in fact given to patients. His search led him to Sister Lauren Weinandt, the hospital's archivist. And while Sister Lauren couldn't provide any written documentation that the drink was prescribed, she did unearth a smoking gun: an empty Schuster's Malt & Hop Tonic bottle in the hospital archives. That find led Dr. Boes to develop a lecture, "Schuster Brewing Company, Rochester, Minnesota: Medicinal Tonic, Temperance, Tragedy, and Top Brass." And much to the delight of local medicinal beverage fans, the lecture prompted Rochester's Forager Brewery to develop the Schuster Special. (Does that mean history does in fact repeat itself?)
Studying history isn't just an exercise in fun, Dr. Boes insists. It's also a useful lens to use when observing the present. In fact, Dr. Boes often integrates history into the lessons he teaches the new doctors he's helping to train. "When you look back at history, you see how often accepted medical dogma is later proven incorrect," Dr. Boes says. "That reminds you to keep a healthy skepticism about what's accepted today."
You can learn more about Mayo Clinic's history on the History of Medicine Society website.