The Urine Wheel
Today, a visit to the doctor sometimes includes a trip to the bathroom with a urine cup. Modern urinalysis, the clinical tests run on a sample to diagnose disease, developed from a much older method called uroscopy. In uroscopy, physicians examined samples of urine not with chemical tests, but with their eyes.
90 mL specimen urine cup
Contemporary urine cups are sterile inside. A seal guarantees that the urine sample won’t get contaminated.
Some of the oldest writing about uroscopy is from the ancient Greek Corpus Hippocraticum, written more than 2,400 years ago. These texts survived, were translated into Latin, and became centrally important to medicine in medieval Europe. One reason for uroscopy’s popularity may have been that religious laws made it socially unacceptable to directly examine a patient’s body, so doctors had to use other methods—including astrological readings and uroscopy.
A doctor would collect a sample of urine in a glass flask and compare the contents to a urine wheel, a chart divided into 20 different parts, each with a different color of urine and notes about the variations of urine odor and flavor. Using the information from the urine wheel, the doctor would make a diagnosis and suggest treatment.
A physician would have carried this “belt book” on a cord attached to his waist—hence this manuscript’s unusual shape. The book has ten sheets of parchment, each folded several times to fit compactly between the long, narrow covers. It includes calendar information, tables of solar and lunar eclipses, and medical charts.
Medieval European medicine relied on bloodletting and urine analysis, and diagrams about both are reproduced here. The “ymago flebotomie” (phlebotomy image) shows the major veins and what complaints could be treated by bleeding them, and the urine wheel depicts 20 flasks of urine and descriptions of what their differing colors mean. Urine analysis was such an important tool that the urine flask was the visual symbol of a doctor, much like the stethoscope is today.