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(Not so) Modern Medicine: The gruesome history behind Lucy Hurst’s debut chapbook

Lucy Hurst’s debut chapbook, Modern Medicine, released June 18th 2021, features a rich variety of medicinal methods from a range of perspectives including, critically, the writer’s own. The titular poem, ‘Modern Medicine’ in particular utilises a range of inspirations from archaic, and often gruesome, array of medicinal techniques…so we thought what better way to introduce you to the chapbook than a swift and horrible look back through the years?


Leeches are one of the most famous methods of conducting medicinal practice centuries ago. The first description of leeching is found in ancient Sanskrit, and their main purpose was to draw blood out of a patient’s body in order to “balance humors". In reality, some of these leeches were poisonous and caused more problems than they solved.

You’ll be surprised to hear that leeching is still used in some places today. Given the scientific name Hirudo medicinalis, leech therapy has even been classified as a medical device by the US Food and Drug Administration. It’s primarily used to help to increase circulation in skin grafts and even increase the probability of success in limb reattachment surgery.

It’s still a nasty practice but has been significantly tweaked and improved since the days of sticking a leech on and hoping the humors become balanced.


One of the oldest surgical procedures in the world, trepanning was the process of drilling a hole into a patient’s skull and letting blood flow out. This is for a few purposes, with the goals ranging from letting the pressure reduce in your head, to allowing evil spirits to escape. After all, illnesses and evil spirits were one and the same to less advanced civilisations.

Trepanning was found all over the world, with civilisations including the Gauls, Romans, and Chinese all thinking that this was a rational way of resolving head injuries and even disease. The removed segment of the skull was sometimes even placed on a prize amulet, worn to protect you from any evil spirits coming back!

Cut Open and Bathe

In years past, it was incredibly easy to let a minor wound get dangerous. From a small spot, you could find yourself with a pus-filled boil or a growth that just won’t go away. Don’t worry. Ancient doctors have the perfect cure for you. By simply slicing open the skin atop your growth, draining it, then sitting in an incredibly hot bath, all of your infection worries will be gone.

The theory behind this is (sort of) sound, with the idea being that the infection would be removed and the wound cauterised shortly afterward. However, with some patients dying from the pain inflicted by this procedure, it might be wiser to stick with antibiotics.

Light a Fire

Following some of the previously mentioned procedures is a hard act to follow, but the procedure of “lighting a fire” takes the gruesomeness down a step. However, that doesn’t make it any more sensible, and could still cause severe damage. The theory is that, by lighting fires around the patient, you could circulate the smoke around them and induce vomiting

Inducing vomiting is unwise at the best of times. Intended to bring the infection with it, many patients were instead poisoned by smoke inhalation, and it wasn’t uncommon to lead to the death of the patient. Even successful procedures ended in uncontrollable vomiting and likely lung damage. It was probably wiser to let the illness go away on its own.

So there you have it! A brief history of some of the methods mentioned in the titular poems of Lucy Hurst's debut chapbook. Modern Medicine is now available on the Fly On The Wall website to buy in paperback and eBook formats.

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