Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Invention of Acne...

A copy of his work [source]
...was a typographical error.

The word "acne" does not come from a classical language root; that is, not in the way we usually derive our modern medical terms. It was described by a Greek physician and then mis-transcribed in a later volume of his work.

Aetius of Amida was a contemporary of Theodoric the Great (454 - 526; mentioned here in connection with Grammar). He was known for the breadth of his learning; his writings show a great knowledge of those who came before him as well as personal skill. He came out of Mesopotamia and learned medicine at Alexandria, known for its medical school.

His famous work was Sixteen Books on Medicine, in which he compiles knowledge from Galen and others of whom we would otherwise have little information: the surgeons Rufus of Ephesus and Leonidas, and the obstetricians and gynecologists Soranus of Ephesus and Philumenus. He is not completely derivative, however. He includes original treatments for eyes, ears, nose and throat, as well as goiter and rabies and others. He also addresses surgical procedures such as for a fistula or tonsilitis.

Although a Christian, he was not immune to the cures that came from non-Christian sources. He relates spells and charms popular in Egypt at the time. Also, in explaining how to help a person suffering from a bone stuck in the throat, he makes the earliest reference to St. Blaise.

As for the condition in which the skin is covered with small eruptions or peaks, he used the Greek word ἀκμή ["acme"; point]. Unfortunately, a scribal error in a later copy turned this into ἀκνή ["acne"]. The popularity of his text made this the common name for the affliction, and so it remains.

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