A Glorious Night of Appetizers and Appendectomies

Last Monday evening was a typical one for us--chatting with L.A.'s British consul general in his elegant, wood-beam-ceilinged home while sipping fine wine, partaking of crunchy hors d'oeuvres shaped like flowers and peering at drawings of some long-dead person's lymph glands. (OK, we lie. This is not how we usually get to spend our time, although the "look at lymph glands" part of the evening comes closer than the "hobnob with dignitaries" part.)

Anyway, the drawings (housed in an album decorated for the occasion with shiny green ribbon) were being donated to a British medical library by Dr. Om Prakash Sharma, a USC physician who'd owned them for 12 years. (His spouse had finally told him, "We have seen enough of those glands.")

But it's the artist, not the glands in question, who's of significance here. The sketcher was Sir Frederick Treves, doctor of the famous Elephant Man, whose bones now reside at the Royal London Hospital (and not in Michael Jackson's mansion). Alas, these weren't the Elephant Man's glands: They were taken from some individual infected with tuberculosis.

Treves, we learned, isn't just famous for being played by Anthony Hopkins in a movie. He was also a famous surgeon and popularized appendectomies in England by operating on King Edward VII in 1902. (The king knew he needed surgery for appendicitis but put it off because he wanted to attend his own coronation.)

And Treves, we further learned, didn't snip out the royal appendix; he merely drained a royal abscess--but no matter. Appendectomies became quite the fashion among docs in England thereafter.

Our evening with the consul just goes to show that you never know where you're going to pick up interesting medical trivia. But although our appetite for info about the human appendix is quite sated for now, we do still have one burning question. What's the recipe for those yummy flower-shaped snacks?

A Toxic Toast to Absinthe Then and Now

Talking of wining and dining, this column might be a lot splashier if I'd partaken of absinthe while writing it. Either that, or I might be lacking an ear right now.

Absinthe, according to our trusty Webster's New World Dictionary, is "a green, bitter, toxic liqueur made with wormwood oil and anise: now illegal in most countries." Artistic folks such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Vincent Van Gogh used to love the stuff. "After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were," wrote Oscar Wilde. "After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."

History doesn't record how many glasses Van Gogh might have drunk before he cut off that ear, and thus whether reality or fantasy may have been more distressing to him. But antics like that--and other bizarre and psychotic behaviors, hallucinations, sudden delirium, convulsions, suicide and death--have long been ascribed to a toxin found plentifully in old-fashioned absinthe brews. (Today's absinthe, where available, isn't as toxic as the old kind--although absinthe "moonshine" can be every bit as potent.)

Now scientists at UC Berkeley have studied that toxin (called alpha-thujone) and found that it affects nerves in the brain that are also malfunctioning in certain types of epilepsy.

Although the scientists are certainly interested in the historical relevance of their findings, they're more concerned, they say, with the fact that certain herbal brews are also made from wormwood and contain the toxin too. They're talking about things like wormwood oil and cedar leaf oil, which are available at herbal medicine outlets and used to treat loss of appetite as well as stomach, gall bladder and liver disorders. The National Institutes of Health plans to look into the matter.

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