Removing the Stone of Madness: Biophemera considers a Renaissance psychosurgical mystery


Surgeon, attributed to Jan Sanders van Hemessen, c. 1550. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Over at Biophemera, a ScienceBlog I've somehow overlooked to date, biologist and artist Jessica Palmer ponders a question raised by a number of Renaissance paintings depicting surgeons removing "stones of madness" from patients's skulls: Did surgeons (or quacks) sham these operations?

It's a juicy and provocative consideration, well worth a look both for the article and the several paintings shown there.

Hemessen, Huys, and Bruegel all depict the same procedure: the removal of stones from the heads of restrained patients, in the presence of nurses or assistants and other onlookers. In many ways, they appear similar to other pieces of the realistic medical genre. Yet these operations, if they were actually performed, clearly had to be shams - playacting in which the surgeon pretended to remove a pebble from the skull, in deference to the "stone of madness" superstition.Could charlatan "surgeons" have fleeced desperate families by purporting to remove a palmed stone from an impressively bloody scalp wound? Could well-intentioned practitioners have done this as a placebo, to convince despairing patients that they had been "cured"? The scenarios seem plausible. Medical quackery was common in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, as doucmented in paintings, books, and edicts of the time. However, there is no historical evidence to suggest that stone extractions were actually conducted in late-medieval or Renaissance Europe, much less a widespread medical scam.  Schupbach (1978) suggests that extractions were theatrical performances, farces or tableaux associated with processions and celebrations, and that these paintings were never meant as documentation of real procedures. In any case, medical historians and art historians have disputed whether the sham operations depicted in the "stone of madness" paintings reflect real events, or are allegorical.

Link to Bioephemera post 'The Stone of Madness'.

Link to TINS article 'Psychosurgery in Renaissance art'.

Hat tip (yet another!) to Vaughn at Mind Hacks.

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