In December 1831 The Lancet reported these strange goings-on in France:
A farmer’s wife, twenty-eight years of age, residing in the neighbourhood of Metz, had for a long time been affected with an unpleasant itching sensation in the nose with coryza…
The OED informs me that coryza comes from the Greek κόρυζα, meaning ‘nasal mucous’. In colloquial English we … Read more
Many medicines prescribed by physicians of the past were chemicals now known to be highly toxic. Mercury, arsenic and antimony were among the harmful substances regularly administered for a variety of conditions. In this case, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1759, a young boy was apparently cured by another chemical now known to be hazardous to health – but … Read more
I recently learned a medical term I hadn’t heard before: ‘true knot’, meaning a knot that forms in the umbilical cord during pregnancy. Foetuses move around a lot inside the amniotic sac, and if the umbilical cord is long it is quite possible for it to loop and form knots – sometimes two or more. (There is also something called … Read more
This strange little tale appeared in various literary and medical journals in 1806. This version is taken from The Medical and Physical Journal, which appears to have been one of the first to publish it. It is a salacious snippet rather than a case report, and some contemporaries read it with scepticism: one leading doctor quoted it in an … Read more
A curious phenomenon common to medical history and folklore is that of the bosom serpent – stories of snakes, frogs, lizards and other animals living inside the human stomach or intestines. According to the physician and medical historian Jan Bondeson, “no fewer than 68 case reports of live reptiles or amphibians inside the gastrointestinal tract” appeared in the professional literature … Read more
If you enjoy reading this blog, and you like going to bed with an audiobook – good news! The audio version of The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth is out now. It contains more than sixty of my favourite medical curiosities – weird and wonderful tales drawn from the historical medical literature.
Readings are by the fantastic Rupert Farley, whose … Read more
Can the human body spontaneously catch fire? For many years people believed that it could. Spontaneous human combustion was a topic that fascinated medics and the general public for many years. In the early nineteenth century it was widely believed to be a genuine phenomenon, caused by some quirk of human physiology (I’ve previously written about one celebrated case from … Read more
William Rhind, a Scottish surgeon of the nineteenth century, had impressively broad interests. He was a botanist of some eminence, publishing a 700-page textbook on the subject which remained in print for over forty years. He was also an expert in geology – although his firm view that the Earth was only around 4000 years old, consistent with the Bible, … Read more
The French surgeon Alphonse Guérin is hardly a household name today – but for a brief period in the late nineteenth century he was a European celebrity. Summoned to Rome to treat Pope Pius IX for a leg ulcer, he made such an impression that the pontiff expressed his thanks by describing him as ‘the greatest surgeon in Christendom’. Guérin … Read more
In 1889 a surgeon from the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin, Kendal Franks, wrote a notable case report for the British Medical Journal. His subject was renal calculus, otherwise known as kidney stones. During an operation in October that year he had removed a stone which was quite unlike anything he’d seen before.
The specimen is composed chiefly of … Read more