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‘Bless you’

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | February 10, 2020

CoronavirusEven without coronavirus, we have enough coughs and colds to generate a lot of “bless yous.”  But what is the origin of this saying?

Renaissance scientists, such as the sixteenth century Flemish anatomist Vesalius, were the first to start to dissect the human body. But the brain presented a problem. There were no chemicals to preserve tissue. By the time they removed the skull the only thing they could study was akin if to a bowl of cold porridge.  The one structure they could discern was the system of ventricles – the symmetrical spaces among the grey matter filled with cerebrospinal fluid.

Even today, over eight out of ten Americans still believe in a soul. In the sixteenth century everyone did. Where then in the brain did the human soul reside? The clear fluid in the ventricles seem to be the best candidate

The early anatomists also identified the cribriform plate, a boney structure at the top of the nasal cavity. We know today that the little holes giving this bone its name actually carry the olfactory nerves from the nose to the brain.

Once it was decided that the soul was the cerebrospinal fluid in the nearby ventricles then perhaps when you sneezed the droplets were tiny fragments of your soul that had been forced through the cribriform plate.

Snot and the soul were the same thing. Bless you!

Comments to “‘Bless you’

  1. Apparently Vesalius found God independent of any anatomical search for a soul.

    “Of all the constituents of the human body, bone is the hardest, the driest, the earthiest, and the coldest;and, excepting only the teeth, it is devoid of sensation.God, the great Creator of all things, formed its substance to this specification with good reason,intending it to be like a foundation for the whole body;for in the fabric of the human body bones perform the same function as dowalls and beams in houses, poles in tents, and keels and ribs in boats.”  Andreas_Vesalius

    So in response to Professor Pott’s “Bless you!” an appropriate rejoinder might be “Throw that dog a bone!”


  2. Good impersonation of Claudius, Prof. Potts! The Bard would be pleased.

    Our campus happens to be the home of a fine folklore archive in the anthropology department, dedicated to the memory of the saintly Alan Dundes, where one can find dozens of etiologies for every custom under the sun, including saying God bless you to a sneezer.

    Saying God bless you (not in English necessarily) or a variation long predates anatomy studies. The connection between exhalations and spirit is built into the related words of biblical languages, like ruach (Hebrew) and pneumo (Greek). Health and sanity are strongly affiliated long before proto-pathologists ever served a bowl of porridge.

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