Thursday, March 28, 2019


The Doctor's Bag

The blog about Medicine and Surgery in the Old West 

By Keith Souter aka CLAY MORE


People often ask why doctors use Latin. Indeed, there is a perception that we use it to make diagnoses sound scholarly, and that we write prescriptions in an indecipherable Latin scrawl to ensure that no-one except a trained pharmacist can read them.        

The fact is that Latin is the international language of medicine, just as it has been since the days of Ancient Rome. You see, because Latin is a dead language it is unchanging, hence its suitability as an international medical language. Thus, doctors speaking in different languages can communicate their findings to one another using medical Latin.

I find the study of medical Latin fascinating, since it illustrates the way in which medical ideas were transmitted. Although the Romans were never great innovators in the field of medicine, they translated the medical works of their neighbours the Greeks into Latin and then disseminated the texts across their empire. 

About ninety to ninety-five per cent of all medical terms are based on Latin and Greek. Most of the anatomical terms and the scientific names of micro-organisms are of Latin origin, whereas many of the disease names and medical terms come from Greek, or a mixture of the two languages. The Greek terms reflect the knowledge and skills of the early Classical Greek physicians, while the Latin terminology comes both from antiquity and from the Renaissance, when Latin became the language of science and medicine. 

The abdominal cavity
The ‘abdomen’, as most people are aware is the name for the anatomical cavity between the thorax (chest) and pelvis. It contains the liver, kidneys, pancreas, stomach, small and large intestines. The name was first coined by the famous Roman encyclopaedist Pliny in 50AD. It comes from the Latin word - from abdere, meaning ‘to hide’ and omentum, meaning ‘entrails’. It literally means, ‘the cavity that hides the entrails’.

But take care if you are writing about gunshot wounds to  the abdomen. The anatomical texts show where organs are expected to be within  the abdomen, but in life they may be in different positions according to body build. In the two extreme types of build illustrated, just look at the positions of the stomach in each case (it is the shaded organ).

Hypersthenic habitus (large build)

 Asthenic habitus (slim build)

A curious link between medicine and the law
 The testis or testicle is the name for the male genital organ. The name actually comes from the Latin testis, meaning ‘witness’. The connection may seem obscure to us today, but it in fact gives us an insight into Ancient Roman law. In Roman times only a man could ‘testify’ in court, or appear as a ‘witness’. Women and eunuchs were excluded, so the presence of testes(plural of testis) was proof of being a man. So, testicles are man’s ‘little witnesses.’ 

Those strange prescriptions
The word ‘prescription’ comes from the Latin words, prae, meaning ‘before’, and scribere, meaning ‘to write’. When your doctor writes a prescription he or she often writes Rx. This is an abbreviation of the Latin word recipe, meaning ‘take thou’. The word sig is often written. It is short for the Latin signa, meaning ‘mark.’ This indicates the instructions for the pharmacist to write on the instructions. You might see an abbreviation like t.d.s. which is short for ter die sumendus, meaning ‘take three times a day.’ And p.r.n., is short for pro re nata, meaning ‘take as required’. 

Arteries – right name, wrong reason
 Most students know that arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the tissues. The name comes from the Greek aerterion,meaning ‘air-carrier. In fact, the early anatomists thought that the arteries carried air, not blood. The reason they assumed this was because the arteries collapse and empty after death, most of the blood being found in the veins. 

A musical bone
The tibia,meaning ‘flute,’ is the large lower leg bone. In Roman days musicians used the tibias of animals and birds to make pipes and flutes. 

And its partner
The fibula is the smaller lower leg bone. It is called fibula - 'broach-pin.' Fibula itself is derived from

figere - to fasten . If you look at them, the fibula looks like a broach-pin.


If you are intrigued by medical Latin, then you might like to dip into this book, which you can pick up for a cent or two!

If you are interested in reading more about medicine and surgery in the frontier days,  then you may find The Doctor's bag useful. It is a collection of my past blog posts, published by Sundown Press.

The novel about Dr George Goodfellow, the Tombstone surgeon to the gunfighters

The novel about Ned Buntline, the King of the Dime Novelists


  1. Wow! Your posts are always fascinating, Keith. Interesting and informative. I had no idea that the internal organs could be found in different locations depending on the person's build. Thanks for a great post.

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  3. Thanks, Jerry. These situations are part of normal variation by body type. But you can also get complete mirroring of organs. This is a congenital condition where organs are in the other side of the body. It is called situs inversus, as opposed to situs solitus, the normal anatomical situation. Very rare, but it still occurs.

    Dextrocardia is the specific finding of the heart in the right rather than the left.

    Doctors always have to consider these possibilities when making a diagnosis.

  4. I remember studying Latin in high school, but it wasn't nearly as fascinating as this post. I still will dig into the language now and then. Since a lot of romance languages have a root in this dead language, it fascinates me. Now I need to get your book! Doris

  5. Glad you liked it, Doris. Edicine has lots of Greek, too. Essentially, Latin for anatomy and Greek origins for pathology.

  6. I have always been fascinated by Greek as a Biblical language and Latin for its use in the sciences, and because so much of our own language is based on Latin and Greek. Your post is educational and entertaining as well. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Thank you, Michael. Here are lots of other fascinating snippets, but I’m always wary about putting in items that folk might be sensitive or squeamish about. In medicine we disguise such things behind the Latin and Greek jargonese!

  8. Keith, I always wanted to learn Latin. My sisters were 10 and 12 when I was born and they went to a high school that taught it. By the time I got to high school, it was not taught anymore--only French and Spanish. I have always wondered what those abbreviations you talked about mean on the prescriptions. Now I know! Thanks so much for another wonderful post. I learn something new every time!

  9. Thank you, Cheryl. An old abbreviation was ex aq cyath vin, short for ex aquae cyatho vinario, meaning ‘in a wineglass of water.’ Usually a powder or drops. People were more sophisticated in days gone by!

    1. Keith, that made me think of my mom's mother, my granny, who used to take "BC Powders" for her headache. They came in little envelopes and you mixed them with something to drink--I remember she kept Dr Pepper for that very reason, and of course, we kids--being kids--just wanted a POP to drink, not even thinking that she might end up needing those for her headaches. I guess the powder must have been bitter so she mixed it with something sweet, and of course being in the carbonated soft drink it would take effect more quickly. At least, that's what we always believed.

    2. That’s sounds about right, Cheryl. And if course, she would be having a double hit if caffeine along with the aspirin.