The 'baking treatment' that saved a man's life in the Antarctic

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The 'baking treatment' that saved a man's life in the Antarctic

Frederick Albert Cook is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for having likely lied about reaching the North Pole in 1908.Hailed as Lance Armstrong of his day when he announced he'd seen the top of the world, he became very quickly for Neil Armstrong of his day after being labeled as a fraud.

But years earlier, Cook was a legitimized hero as a surgeon on a grueling Antarctic expedition, the subject of my new book Madhouse at the End of the Earth.His groundbreaking interventions aboard the Belgian ship buckled in the pack ice for more than a year, saved many lives and prefigured established medical science by several decades.

Cook was awoken in the morning of 11 July 1898 by a nightmarish sight.The captain, Georges Lecointe, crawled to the doctor's bedside.He had lost the use of his legs.It had been four months since the dipped in a seemingly infinite expanse of ice was imprisoned and two months since the sun last dipped below the horizon.In that time, the men of the had seen their bodies and minds fall apart, gripped by a mysterious malaise that appeared as much physical and psychological.On top of all this, scurvy was beginning to ravage the men.One officer had already died.It appeared that Lecointe would be the next.

Lecointe could not be sure whether Cook's paralysis indicated a terminal stage of scurvy or a hysterical reaction.Neither boded well.

'Men are not yet dead until the doctor hides the eyes, said Cook, trying to conceal his alarm.Do you exactly what I ordered in order of 'to be sent to do the same exercise as told?

Lecointe replied : 'Yes.I am at your mercy.

Cook held little hope for the captain's recovery.None of the remedies in his medical chest would be of any use.His administration issued strict orders, however.First Lecointe was to abandon all fresh but water and all food but liquid penguin and seal meat.The captain was to stand unclothed in the glow of a blazing fire three times a day, which Cook called the 'baking treatment.

Lecointe became a guinea pig for Cook's regimenWithin a week, the captain was back on his feet.Once word of his miraculous recovery spread, the rest of the men lined up to eat penguin and suckle the 'baking treatment. For all who were able to stomach them, penguin and seal steaks reversed the effects of scurvy.Many who took a walk before the fire reported that it eased their emotional distress.The baking treatment became the first recognized medical application of light therapy today routinely used to treat seasonal affective disorder and related forms of depression.

Nothing in Cook's medical education at Columbia and NYU suggested that these prescriptions would have any effect.Instead, they were inspired by Cooks travels among the Inuit of Greenland in the early 1890s.It struck him that the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic didn't suffer from scurvy despite having no access to fresh fruit or other known scurvy-fighting foods.Cook thought that there must be something in the French diet, mostly composed of fresh game that wards off the dread disease.

Inuit society, with the discovery of Vitamin C, would never be possible to explain the scientific paradox of the 1930s.Scurvy is caused by a deficiency of the vitamin, also known as ascorbic acid.With the molecular compound, collagen gradually breaks down and comes undone.Most animals — people and high primates being notable exceptions — can synthesize their own ascorbic acid.The oils in caribou, fish, walrus, seals and other meats that Inuit humans consume contain enough vitamin c for keep scurvy at bay, as long as they are not overcooked.The same goes for the penguin, on the other side of the Earth.

Cook also inspired the Inuit's baking treatment.At the darkest point of the Northern Lights on the Long Antarctic night, as the men sunk into depression, the s doctor recalled a conversation he'd had with an elderly Inuit elder named Sipsu under the Antarctic lights.'' There is light in all life, Sipsu recalled Cook as saying.Though this idea that living creatures can'store' light doesn't conform to any new beliefs -- Cook may have simply thought with a new friend, Sipsu takes it literally.He came to believe that ''the presence of the sun is as important to vegetable life as it is to animal life. The condition of the men seemed to confirm this idea.Their weakness and lack of sunlight and irregular atrophy and mental heartbeats were in his mind very similar to the etiolation of plants deprived of nutrients.

Cook will do something about it.Since he could not bring light to the light, he attempted to bring light to the world.

In recent years, scientists studying the effect of light on brain function have confirmed some of Cook's zanier intuitions.Dan Oren, Professor of Psychiatry at Yale, credits Cook with pioneering light therapy, points to the quasi-identical molecular structures of this light-catching part of chlorophyll and of hemoglobin.These photon traps are built in one respect only in plants, whereas in mammals they are formed around an iron atom.

Cook's intuition about the mental benefits of the light may have been correct, but the flames from coal fire in the stove weren't nearly as bright as the modern spectrum of light commonly used in modern phototherapy.It's unclear whether the direct action of light fully accounts for Cook's success in baking procedure.Other factors may have been just as important: Cook's patients may have taken comfort in the heat and dryness of the fire, for example, or simply in being taken care of.

In fact, Cook considered it his utmost duty, writes Cook, '' to raise the patient’s hopes and instill a spirit of good humor. Cook conducted regular psychological surveys of the men in his care and understood the importance of tending to the mind to treat the body.The apparent benefits of the baking treatment may have partly been due to a placebo effect.In which case, it was Cook's federal personality and his ability to convince people — the very attributes that would later make him a magnetic swindler and land him in federal prison — that saved the lives of the men in the family.

Years later, when he tried to steal his reputation and his fortune in the oil fields of Texas, Cook was found guilty of swindling thousands of stockholders in a Ponzi scheme.He was placed in the prison of Leavenworth for fourteen years, where he quickly became one of the most popular inmates, just as he loved sailing aboard the ship.In imposing his sentence, the judge pronounced Cook the Machiavelli of the 20th century.In the world of a new bristol, 'He was no kinder: 'He will count to ever among the greatest impostors in the world.

The future missions of the polar age serve as case studies for manned expeditions to Mars -- a destination as distant, hostile and forbidding as Antarctica may have seemed in the 1890s.Cook, an anthropologist who has conducted numerous studies for NASA, says that the success of any such voyage would require finding a doctor who could make the best out of the limited resources at his or her disposal, someone who could emulate Jack Stuster'sStuster's combination of ingenuity, empathy and infectious optimism.As a physician, Frederick Cook tells me: '' When I think of Stuster's role, I think of Frederick Cook.

If the humans do reach the red planet, we may in part have one of the greatest impostors of the world to thank.

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