Casanova's Medicine

    18th century medical practice





             SMALLPOX

                   When Casanova was only 12 his childhood sweetheart, Bettina,  contracted smallpox, the river' that all must cross’. According to two eighteenth century early  statisticians, James Jurin in London and Daniel Bernoulli of Basel, the chance of contracting smallpox during one’s lifetime was one in three and of then dying, one in five. Smallpox was responsible for 200,000 deaths per year in Europe in the early 1800s, of which the vast majority were children.  There was no effective treatment not least because the cause of the disease was completely misunderstood.

  If you survived you were probably disfigured partly because of all the scratching . Casanova dissuaded Bettina from scratching with the following remark:

“Remember, Bettina that you are going to get well; but if you dare scratch yourself, you will be so ugly that no one will ever love you again.”

 REMOVING  A CATARACT

   In 1764 whilst in Warsaw Casanova met a fellow Italian, Tadini, who boasted that he had developed an artificial lens to correct the problems that arise from cataract removal.He wanted Casanova to persude a patient to  let him to do the corrrective operation.  Cataract operations were then  becoming common. Jaques Daviel (1696-1762)  performed the first extra- capsular cataract extraction in 1747 and within five years had performed 206 operations.

When Tadini  showed Casanova  a small box filled with minute round crystals, of which  he wanted to  insert one  under the cornea to replace the lens, his idea was met with incredulity and derision. Although he did not get the chance to try this out, in 1795 an oculist from Dresden,  Casaamata, attempted to correct the problems arising by lens removal with an intra ocular lens. Unfortunately the glass lens substitute used sank under its own weight.

‘ THE ITCH'


'There are many towns in Italy where one can enjoy all the pleasures obtainable at Bologna; but nowhere so cheaply, so easily, or with so much freedom. The living is excellent, and there are arcades where one can walk in the shade in learned and witty company. It is a great pity that either from the air, the water, or the wine –for men of science have not made up their mind on the subject, persons who live at Bologna are subject to a slight itch. The Bolognese, however, far from finding this unpleasant, seem to think it an advantage; it gives them the pleasure of scratching themselves. In springtime the ladies distinguish themselves by the grace with which they use their fingers.’


 The cause was probably the scabies mite which was particularly active in the warmer months .

  


 Casanova's Guide to Medicine is available for preorder from February 2021 from Pen and Sword Ltd 


  If you would like to know more about Casanova also visit : casanovashadows.com  where you will also find a graphic novel  by David Thompson and Kevin Butters .

 For more about Venice and Casanova see ; kathleenanngonzalez.wixsite.com


 

 

I am Lisetta Lovett.  This website uses  stories in Giacomo Casanova's Memoirs as  the inspiration for exploring various aspects of health, illness and medical practice  during the 18th century. Most people assume that Casanova was merely a libertine who took  every opportunity to exploit  women.  This is debateable. But what is not is his scholarship, intelligence and powers of observation. He was interested  in studying medicine  from an early age but his guardian and mother forbade him. Fortunately, he maintained that interest. He wrote with eloquence about the lived experience of suffering various diseases and the challenges of finding a competent doctor. These  remain perhaps the main  preoccupations of patients today .

    Let me say a little about myself. I  retired from the NHS in 2012, where I was a Consultant Psychiatrist. Since then, I have been researching the medical episodes, and their histroical background, that Casanova described in his memoirs. My book is called  Casanova's Guide To Medicine: 18th century Medical Practice. It is due to be published by Pen and Sword Ltd in April 2021 .    

Dr Lisetta Lovett 

 Honorary Senior Lecturer in Humanities,  Keele University.UK 


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