False facts that actually changed the world

We thought the body was governed by four forces, so that’s how we kept trying to heal it

London’s Science Museum blames the ancient Greek physicians for writing the long-accepted treatise on exactly how humans’ innards and squishy bits worked. They’re the ones who said the human body was governed by the interaction between four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. That disgusting quartet was associated with the earthly elements of fire, earth, water, and air, and the Harvard University Library’s collection on contagion says that they were also linked to the human conditions of choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine, respectively. When those humors were in balance, all was well. But when they were unbalanced, we got sick.

It has its own weird sort of logic, and it’s not entirely surprising that it was the go-to theory in medicine well into the 19th century. A lot of medical treatments — like enemas, purging, and lifestyle changes — were thought to restore the humors’ balance. One of the most dangerous of these practices was bloodletting, and it continued well into the middle of the 19th century. It was definitely a case of the treatment being worse than the illness, and countless people died from what was being done to, theoretically, make them better.

PBS NewsHour says that one of those people, in fact, was George Washington. While we don’t know precisely what killed him, the fact that doctors removed about 40 percent of his blood in an attempt to alleviate his sore throat and difficulty breathing probably didn’t help matters in the least.