“In this age of education and progress, the Science of Health is no longer the exclusive possession of a profession, but is made an open book for those who have the wisdom to learn.”

That’s a very modern-sounding statement, isn’t it? But it’s not referring to the Web. In fact, it’s from the preface to a book published in 1899, a book that attempted to contain within its 1000-plus pages “the wisdom and experience, the best results of years of practical observation, of prominent and enlightened physicians, upon the simplest and most effectual methods of promoting health, overcoming disease and prolonging life.”

Between 1899 and 1930 (when a new, expanded edition was published), Vitalogy, by M.D.s George P. Woodand E. H. Ruddock, sold half a million copies. Millions cherished and relied upon its advice. And thanks to my mother-in-law’s cleaning of her basement, I’ve recently come upon a copy.

Leafing through Vitalogy now is both amusing and amazing: amusing, because so much of what is said seems laughable, and amazing, because some of it seems right up to date.

You know right from the beginning you’re not in the 21st century any more as you read a long description of the benefits of sun-bathing. The sun, apparently, “has the power to “start every little nerve cell in the body into active vibration” which “stimulates into action the proper interchange of fluids in the minute cells of the muscular structure, promoting subdivision and new formation of cells.”

No mention of skin cancer, you’ll notice; but on the other hand, skin cancer was of no great concern to the authors of Vitalogy, because they knew of several cures for it, including a poultice of cranberries and (my favorite) the flesh of a fresh-killed chicken.

Vitalogy is full of medical advice for conditions which we, in this supposedly more advanced age, find intractable. For example, “An ordinary cold can be readily cured in its incipient stage by soaking the feet in as hot mustard-water as can well be borne,” and “Salt and warm milk when properly combined and rightly used, is one of the few remedies that will cure catarrh” (a.k.a. the flu.)

Epilepsy? “This disease has frequently been cured by the patient using almost an exclusive milk-diet.

Impotence? Forget Viagra. The most successful remedy is “the application of electricity directly to the part.” (Ouch!)

Never a hint of doubt as to the efficacy of even the most outlandish-sounding treatment appears in the book. It is just as confident about the causes of various illnesses. Colds are caused by “the application of cold to the body giving a check to perspiration”, influenza epidemics are “undoubtedly” due to the “state of the atmosphere,” and brain fever is often caused by “night-watching, especially when joined with hard study.”

Vitalogy includes hundreds of pages of information about the medicinal properties of herbs (a response to the dangers of the patent medicines of the day, which were worse than useless). Hundreds more pages deal with topics ranging from first aid (applying an onion paste to a snake bite can apparently save patients who are in “the very agonies of death”) to the benefits of the brush foot bath, which apparently opens up the pores of the feet and allow toxins from the body to escape. “The mother who has reared and trained her children to use this foot bath has taught them a lesson that is of more value than any lesson, aye, more than any hundred lessons that were ever taught them in school or college!”

There’s advice on marriage; women, Vitalogy says, shouldn’t marry until they are between 20 and 25, because “the female constitution is not sufficiently formed and matured” until that age.

And then there’s the page on how the color of your hair indicates your character: black hair indicates physical strength; white hair, mental vigor; red hair, a fiery temperament, passion and devotion; wavy hair, a pliable, yielding, accommodating disposition; and straight, stuck-up hair, stubbornness and fidelity.

Vitalogy remained popular until the Second World War, when advancing medical knowledge rendered it obsolete. Its more recent claim to fame is as the inspiration for a 1994 album by Pearl Jam–the CD cover even reproduced the cover of the book.

Today, Vitalogy is a fascinating record of just how far medical knowledge has come in 100 years–and a sobering reminder of just how foolish some of what we believe may look a hundred years from now.

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