Moulded to the lid

The Victorian surgeon Sir Jonathan Hutchinson was ‘one of the great medical geniuses of his time’, according to his entry in Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows, the biographical reference work curated by the Royal College of Surgeons. Hutchinson had an astonishing range of interests – he was an expert in infectious disease (the world’s leading authority on syphilis), in … Read more

Resuscitated by a Romanov

I came across this case quite by chance, drawn in by a striking headline. But after investigating a little further I was amused to discover that one of those involved was an ancestor of mine.

This story was first published two centuries ago, in the Annual Report of the Royal Humane Society. The humane societies were organisations set up with … Read more

Death by onanism

Victorian society was famously paranoid about the dangers of masturbation. For teachers, priests and those with responsibility for young people, it was a question of morals and the corruption of youth – but the medical profession also agreed that self-abuse was a vice with terrible consequences. The old cliché that the practice ‘makes you go blind’ was not said just … Read more

The golden pin

This story has a delightful combination of youthful misadventure and surgical ingenuity. OK, so ‘delightful’ might be a bit of a stretch, but I suspect you’ve never read anything quite like it. The case was first published in a French medical journal, the Journal des Connaissances Médico-chirurgicales, in 1847.

The headline translates as ‘Memoir and observations on a new … Read more

The surgeon and the smugglers

Richard Elkanah Hoyle was not a famous surgeon. He never invented a new operation, or contributed to a medical journal, or belonged to a learned society. But he was responsible for one of the most unusual tales you’ll ever hear.

In May 1845 a local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Chronicle, reported a mystery:

Extraordinary occurrence

An intense sensation has been created in Read more

The galley slave and the barrel hoop

This (almost) incredible case report was printed in The Medical and Physical Journal in 1812, but dates from almost forty years earlier, first appearing in the French medical literature.

Capacity of the human stomach

A galley-slave, a native of Nantes, entered the marine hospital at Brest the 5th of September, 1774. He complained of cough, pains in the stomach, and bowels; for which M. de Read more

Specific gravity

I came across this unusual case in a book published in 1876, A Dozen Cases: Clinical Surgery by William Tod Helmuth, a distinguished homeopathic surgeon. The phrase ‘homeopathic surgeon’ might sound like a contradiction in terms, if all you know of homeopathy is sugar pills and massively diluted tinctures. But in nineteenth-century America, where homeopathy was one of several rival … Read more

A gallon a day keeps the doctor away

Bloodletting is one of the oldest medical treatments of all, employed for centuries in cultures all over the world. It’s also become a sort of lazy shorthand for the ignorance of our ancestors, the prime example of a useless and harmful technique that doctors persisted in using despite no good evidence for its efficacy.

Although it was largely abandoned as … Read more