To the Editor:
Dr. Schwartz dates the first description of hemoglobinuria (as black urine) to the 13th century AD (1).
About 400 BC, however, Hippocrates described urinary quantity, color, consistency, or sediment in 41 of 42 case reports in his Book of Epidemics (2). Twelve case reports mention black urine, a frequency so high that one wonders if glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (3) and/or fava bean ingestion could have predisposed this population to hemolysis.
Inspection of the urine was important in ancient Greek medicine, but has been recently dismissed as “mostly nonsense” (4). Yet, the approach taken by Hippocrates was remarkably modern. In several patients having pigmented urine, Hippocrates checked for the appearance of a sediment after allowing the urine to sit – a maneuver that would have allowed him to distinguish hematuria from hemoglobinuria and myoglobinuria.
Such insights from Hippocrates are not surprising. As Garrison has remarked, “All that a man of genius could do for internal medicine, with no other instrument of precision than his own open mind and keen senses, he accomplished” (5).
(1) Schwartz RS. Black mornings, yellow sunsets -- a day with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. N Engl J Med. 2004;350:537-538.
(2) Adams F. The Genuine Works of Hippocrates. Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger, 1972; 110-141.
(3) Tran TH, Day NP, Ly VC, Nguyen TH, Pham PL, Nguyen HP, Bethell DB, Dihn XS, Tran TH, White NJ. Blackwater fever in southern Vietnam: a prospective descriptive study of 50 cases. Clin Infect Dis. 1996;23:1274-1281.
(4) Majno G. The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 197; 494 note 159.
(5) Garrison FH. An Introduction to the History of Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia: WB Saunders, 1929: 94.