The Gluten of the 1900s

The Gluten of the 1900s
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Since the rise of both modern medicine and society, a large subset of the Western World's population has required a scapegoat to explain their everyday ills. Today, it's gluten. A decade ago, it was monosodium glutamate (MSG). One hundred years ago, it was poop.

Yes, poop. But I'm not talking about the occasional dog doo along the side of the road. (Though in the early 1900s, there was plenty of horse manure to go around.) I'm referring to the feces stored inside you, within the wondrous trash receptacle that is the colon.

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians were affronted by the idea that, at any given time, feces were inside their bodies. If it was so nasty coming out, surely it must equally nasty roiling about within! They reasoned that putrefying poop releases toxins that leach into the circulatory system, causing fever, creating pus, and making people sick.

We can excuse the ancient Egyptians for their naiveté, but it's harder to go easy on physicians of the early 1900s. With a shiny new name -- autointoxication -- and just a few preliminary studies to back it, the theory became widespread. Admittedly, it must have been difficult to go against Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, who won the 1908 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on phagocytosis, the process in which a cell -- often a white blood cell -- engulfs an invading particle or microbe. Mechnikov argued that intestinal toxins shorten lifespan, and that lactic acid could break them down. That's why he drank sour milk every day.

Sir William Arbuthnot Lane was also an influential proponent of autointoxication. But it was his wild overreaction to the theory that eventually helped reveal it as pseudoscience. Lane advocated irrigating, and sometimes even removing, the colon entirely to treat conditions ranging from general fatigue to epilepsy. Needless to say, both approaches did far more harm than good. Colon removal was particularly ill-advised. After all, if you eliminate an integral part of a sewage treatment plant, pretty soon you'll find $%#@ everywhere. When Walter Alvarez publicly pointed out the sheer lunacy of demonizing a vital bodily organ in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1919, physicians everywhere finally shook off their fecal infatuation.

"Autointoxication was one of the most pervasive and enduring concepts in the long, bloated history of medical pseudoscience," Mary Roach wrote in Gulp. "It made no difference that neither the specific poisons nor the mechanisms by which they might be causing harm were known or named. In the realm of quackery, vague is better."

"It met a need," wrote James Whorton, a historian of science at the University of Washington, "that medicine has felt in every age, providing an explanation and diagnosis for all those exasperating patients who insist they are sick but are unable to present the physician with any clear organic pathology to prove it."

"Autointoxication was the gluten of the early 1900s," Roach commented.

Today, autointoxication lives on in the form of fruitless cleanse diets and enemas of all sorts. The lingering stench of pseudoscience never fully dissipates, especially when it comes to [email protected]#$%.

Source: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach, 2013

(Image: prostok / Shutterstock.com )

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