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On Shakespeare, medicine and modern nutrition

Opportunities to indulge the former English major in me are so rare in this health-writer job of mine, I'm inclined to seize them when I see them.

Scanning the contents of the new issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, I came across this item in the publication's JAMA 100 Years Ago department. It's a charming, unsigned editorial, published a century ago tomorrow, wondering how William Shakespeare may have acquired what appeared to be his extensive knowledge of medical matters.

The article, "Light on Shakespeare's Medical Information," notes that much of the Bard's information about specific ailments and the medications and other treatments for them likely came to him by osmosis. In those days, many women maintained medicine cabinets and were responsible for keeping their families and often their neighbors healthy. Shakespeare, the information-absorber that he was, probably learned a lot about boils and pox and the like without even trying.

As for his seeming knowledge of the workings of the circulatory system, the editorial notes that true understanding of the mechanics of the heart and blood vessels had not fully emerged when Shakespeare was writing. He probably had only a general idea that blood moves through the body and that the heart was involved in making it move.

But Shakespeare did know his mental illnesses. The article notes that in his day, mentally ill people weren't locked away in institutions. Shakespeare could train his powers of observation on people suffering all manner of mental disorders without going out of his way to encounter them.

In the end, though, the article's author suggests that delving so deeply into the specifics of Shakespeare's medical knowledge may detract from our appreciation of the sheer genius of his work.

I see a parallel in the way we've come to talk about food. Yes, it's important to pin down the science of nutrition and to arm ourselves with information to make our diets as healthful as possible. But sometimes I think we spend too much time analyzing and discussing what we put in our mouths.

Sometimes we should just eat -- and enjoy.

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 29, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health , Mental Health  
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