Dead or alive at will

In 1733 a book about depression and mental health was published in Dublin: The English Malady; or, A Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Distemper. The author, George Cheyne – born a Scot, though he moved to London – was convinced that the English were uniquely prone to depressive … Read more

The seven-foot tumour

monstrous wombThis brief case report is a reminder that there are certain medical horrors which were once commonplace but which are never seen today in the developed world. Untreatable conditions would progress unhindered, often resulting in terrible deformity. Tumours could reach a size almost unimaginable to the modern mind – although in developing countries such cases do, sadly, still arise.

This … Read more

Death by Christmas dinner

LacerationIf you haven’t yet bought everything for your Christmas dinner, this tale from almost 200 years ago may cause you to remove a few items from your shopping list.  Published in the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions in 1814 by Thomas Chevalier, a distinguished surgeon and polymath also notable for his English translation of Pascal’s Pensées, it concerns a teenage boy who … Read more

The case of the missing pen

You know those stories about old soldiers who suddenly develop mysterious back pain in their eighties, and discover that it’s caused by a bullet from the Second World War still deeply embedded in tissue?  Most of them are true.  Foreign bodies are often well tolerated by the body, and can lie dormant for decades before causing any problems.

This story, … Read more

Medical qualifications: optional

zeifertHere’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 patient.

On March 3… Read more

Chess and phrenology

chess and phrenologyIn 1841 The Dublin Journal of Medical Science printed a short report of a meeting which had taken place earlier that year in London.  It begins with a sarcastic little disclaimer:

We are not quite satisfied that the subjoined paragraph, taken from a weekly London paper, contains a correct account of Dr. Elliotson’s Phrenological Lecture on the cranium of De Read more

Breaking news: swallowing knives is bad for you

Account of a man who lived ten years after swallowing a number of claspknivesCompulsive swallowers have always featured heavily in medical literature.  There are numerous cases in 19th-century journals – but most of the individuals concerned were obviously suffering from some kind of mental illness.  This, from the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions for 1823, is the first I’ve come across in which the patient was swallowing knives for a laugh.

In the month Read more

Death of a 152-year-old (or was he?)

HarveyWilliam Harvey is deservedly one of the most famous physicians who ever lived.  His demonstration that the heart is a pump which circulates blood throughout the body was a triumph of early modern science, a discovery that revolutionised medicine.

In addition to De Motu Cordis, the treatise in which he details the sophisticated experiments and subtle reasoning that led … Read more

The combustible countess

Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early nineteenth century, when a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press.  Charles Dickens even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, in this manner.

BH combustion

Sometimes the body of the victim was the only thing that had been burnt, suggesting that the combustion … Read more