“The king was bled to the extent of a pint from a vein in his right arm. Next, his shoulder was cut into and the incised area was sucked off an additional 8 oz. of blood. An emetic and a purgative were administered followed by a second purgative followed by an enema containing antimony, sacred bitters, rock salt, mallow leaves, violets, beetroot, chamomile flowers, fennel seeds, linseed, cinnamon, cardamom seed, saffron, cochineal, and aloes.

“The king’s scalp was shaved and a blister raised. A sneezing powder of hellebore was administered. A plaster of burgundy pitch and pigeon dung was applied to the feet. Medicaments included melon seeds, manna, slippery elm, black cherry water, lime flowers, lily of the valley, peony, lavender, and dissolved pearls.

“As he grew worse, 40 drops of extract of a human skull were administered, followed by a rallying dose of Raleigh’s antidote. Finally, Bezoar Stone was given. Curiously, his majesty’s strength seemed to wane after all these interventions and as the end of his life seemed imminent, his doctors tried a last ditch attempt by forcing more Raleigh’s mixture, pearl julep, and ammonia down the dying king’s throat. Further treatment was rendered more difficult by the king’s death.”

We can be sure that the physicians gathered around the king’s bed were all leaders in their particular field — royalty and presidents do not settle for anything less. But as Proust observed, with hindsight, we can now see the hideous error of their therapeutics.

Today, the skull drops, the ammonia, and the pigeon dung have long since disappeared from the conventional arsenal, but what will we say in a few years’ time when we look back on the “highly respected” cancer therapeutics of 2002? Will we dare to venture that there is nothing new under the sun?

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