The carrot cataplasm

Pretty much any substance you care to mention has, at one time or another, been touted as a cure for cancer. The historic medical literature is littered with unsuccessful specifics for the disease. Many of them were deadly poisons such as arsenic or belladonna – indeed, the use of poisons has persisted, in a more sophisticated form, in contemporary chemotherapies.… Read more

The perils of a sneeze

A few months ago I wrote about the criminal who was lucky to recover after inhaling a fake gold earring. By chance I’ve just come across another case report written by the same Victorian surgeon, Bernard Pitts. Not a well-known figure, principally because he wrote little and shunned publicity. But he seems to have been a very good … Read more

A late arrival

Charles Delucena Meigs (1792-1869) was an American obstetrician of some eminence. His textbook Obstetrics, the Science and Art was influential and remained in print for many years.

Perhaps the most notorious passage of this work is a section he added to the 1856 edition, explaining his opposition to the use of anaesthesia in childbirth. Chloroform (and, in the US, ether) … Read more

A cautionary tale

This case was reported in the Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports – the in-house journal published by the London hospital of the same name – in 1879. The author of this article, William Steavenson, was a 29-year-old house physician at Barts (as those familiar with the hospital call it). Steavenson’s interests included chronic asthma – from which he had suffered since … Read more

Libel and lithotomy

In his textbook The Principles of Surgery (1801) the Scottish surgeon John Bell emphasised the importance of speed when operating to remove bladder stones, condemning

those long and murderous operations, where the surgeon labours for an hour in extracting the stone, to the inevitable destruction of the patient.

That quotation appears as a footnote underneath the dramatic headline of an … Read more

Difficult to swallow

Years ago, many leading hospitals had their own journals, with most or all of the articles produced by the institution’s clinical staff. A couple of American centres (notably the Mayo Clinic) still lend their names to medical journals, but on this side of the Atlantic such in-house publications have largely gone extinct.

This criminal caper was published in the St Read more

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