The mystery of the poisonous cheese

In 1835 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a series of articles about cheese.  For several months New England residents had been falling ill after consuming the delicious comestible, and nobody knew why.  A Dr Alcott contributed this account of one such outbreak: At the raising of a building belonging to Seth Thomas, Esq. … Continue reading The mystery of the poisonous cheese

Nutmegs is the best spice for students

In 1584 the Tudor physician Thomas Cogan published The Haven of Health, a guide to maintaining health primarily aimed at the student.  The bulk of the book concerns food and the diet, working its way systematically through different types of meat, vegetable, fruit, herbs and spices – and paying attention to their medicinal properties as … Continue reading Nutmegs is the best spice for students

The supernumerary leg

Before the advent of antenatal screening, birth abnormalities were far commoner than they are today.  Early medical journals had a particular fascination with these ‘monstrosities’, printing regular reports of children born without limbs or with anomalous or absent internal organs.  Reading these reports today, there is often little sense that they were printed for any … Continue reading The supernumerary leg

Monsieur Mangetout

Medical journals usually pride themselves on presenting cutting-edge research, but in 1851 The Medical Examiner reported a case which was already half a century old.  It’s not clear what they thought it added to contemporary scholarship, but it’s certainly a good story. Charles Demery, a native of Benche, on the frontiers of Poland, aged 21, … Continue reading Monsieur Mangetout

Put a bandage on it

The treatment of venereal disease was one of the main functions of the medical profession from the Middle Ages until the adoption of antibiotics in the late 1940s greatly reduced their incidence and seriousness.  It was an uphill battle: although they had some success with mercury, there was little that was truly effective against infections … Continue reading Put a bandage on it

The black sheep

In the days before the NHS, when physicians charged patients for their services, there was an unspoken agreement that members of the medical profession would waive their fees when the patient was a colleague or a member of their family.  In countries with no national health service this convention persisted for longer: in the late … Continue reading The black sheep

Poisoning pooches in the park

[with apologies to Tom Lehrer] Articles in early scientific journals are often little more than a series of anecdotes, without experimental controls or any attempt to reach sound conclusions through quantitative means.  This flaw is particularly apparent in articles on medical subjects, where a successful ‘cure’ of a patient is often accepted at face value, … Continue reading Poisoning pooches in the park

Portrait of a quack

In 1804 The Medical and Physical Journal decided to name and shame some of London’s most notorious quacks.  One of the unscrupulous practitioners exposed to public humiliation was a certain Dr Day: He was born in  Holland, though of German parents, of the name of Dies, which the Doctor has translated into the English synonym … Continue reading Portrait of a quack

Medical qualifications: optional

Here’s a report of a criminal trial at the Old Bailey from a little over a century ago which truly made me grateful for modern medicine – and in particular for the modern regulation of the profession.  In this case a doctor without any qualifications escaped with a slap on the wrist, despite having killed a … Continue reading Medical qualifications: optional