Researchers Diagnose Herod the Great

The leader is probably most notorious for the "Massacre of the Innocents," as described in the gospel of Matthew. When, upon hearing that a new king of Jews had been born in Judaea, Herod ordered the killing of all male infants of Bethlehem aged 2 years or younger.

When he realized his own death was imminent, Herod directed his sister to assemble the leading men of distinction from all parts of the nation into a large arena and ordered they be killed as soon as he died.

"This was to discourage any celebrations at his death," explained Maier. "At the time he was a walking encyclopedia of disease."

Hot Oil Therapy

In an effort to fend off his afflictions, Herod the Great summoned the nation's best physicians to his side. The medical team decided to place the king in a tub of hot oil, which, needless to say, didn't help and even temporarily blinded him.

"At that time they believed that health and disease all depended on the interaction of the four vital humors — blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm," said Mackowiak. "So presumably they thought the oil bath might help cure this imbalance of his vital humors."

A couple thousand years later, contemporary doctors were discussing what might have been proper treatments for the king, including kidney dialysis and surgical removal of his gangrene, at a special clinical pathologic conference today at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Each year Mackowiak selects a new historical figure to discuss possible diagnosis and treatment. Last year's subject was the Roman Emperor Claudius.

"I think the exercise teaches doctors to be humble," said Mackowiak. "We can see how every generation of medical scientists are absolutely convinced they have found the answers. But it's apparent that this is a field that requires constant learning."

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