St Patrick’s Day celebrations will, obviously, be very muted this year, courtesy of the Sars-Cov-2 virus – the new strain of coronavirus. It got me thinking about how saints have been linked with diseases, cures and doctors through the centuries.
St Patrick is cited as someone to pray to if you have epilepsy. Tradition has it that a person with epilepsy who slept on "leaba Pharaic" on Caher Island off the Mayo coast could be cured. According to folklore, St Patrick died on March 17th, AD 460, and his jawbone was preserved in a silver shrine. The relic was reported to be a source of solace for those experiencing difficulties with childbirth and epileptic seizures.
Our patron saint features strongly in references to Ireland's holy wells. According to the authors of Fishstonewater – Holy Wells of Ireland, St Patrick is the saint most commonly associated with these locations. The water from St Patrick's well in Rathvilly, Co Carlow, was traditionally used as a "cure" for toothache and earache.
Another well, at the foot of the Ox Mountains in Dromard, Co Sligo, also venerates St Patrick. Water from this well is said to cure eye and skin ailments. A bonus for this location is that a rock on top of the hill overlooking the well is said to cure backache. According to folklore, St Patrick rested his back against this rock while he was building the wall around the well. Bark from a tree over the well was used to relieve backache.
St Benedict is a true all rounder who helps those with fever, kidney disease and temptations of the devil'
Some saints are specialists when it comes to combating disease, while others are generalists. St Lucy looks after eye disease, dysentery and “haemorrhages in general”, while St Benedict is a true all rounder who helps those with fever, kidney disease and “temptations of the devil”.
Then there are the saints after whom specific diseases have been named: St Anthony and St Vitus. St Anthony's Fire was the traditional name for erysipelas, a condition marked by redness and swelling of the skin brought on by streptococcal infection. A third-century Egyptian ascetic, St Anthony's bones were enshrined in Vienne, France, where they reportedly helped heal pilgrims during an epidemic of erysipelas in the 11th century. And "St Vitus Dance" refers to convulsive twitchings and movements that suggest a grotesque dance. St Vitus was an Italian boy who was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian. During the 15th and 16th centuries children seeking good health danced around statues of St Vitus. The dancing was somewhat frenzied and the St Vitus name was then applied to the writhing movements of chorea, a condition brought on by acute rheumatic fever.
There are plenty of candidates when it comes to patron saints of medicine. Saints Cosmas and Damian are patron saints of medical doctors, surgeons and pharmacists. Twin brothers born in Arabia, both were trained medical doctors who were known for their compassionate practice of the medical sciences of their day. They were advocates of an approach termed “incubation”, in which the sick would move into churches or sanctuaries to be closer to God – and, hopefully, to a cure.
St Camillus, as the patron saint of the sick, hospitals, nurses and physicians, is another all rounder. He is also reputedly a good bet for those seeking help with gambling. St Pantaleon, meanwhile, is often depicted as a physician holding a phial of medicine. A patron of the medical profession, he is invoked against tuberculosis and other lung diseases and is especially venerated in France and Germany.
Along with Cosmas and Damian, St Luke is the saint most associated with medicine. He was doctor to St Paul. Luke was the author of the Third Gospel and there are more than 30 medical references, to do with healing body and spirit, in his Gospel.