The spider’s web cure

spider's webUntil the nineteenth century, spider’s web was often used as a folk remedy for superficial lacerations. The great tensile strength of spider silk was probably quite effective at holding the edges of a wound together, although doubtless it also brought the risk of infection. Until I came across an article published in The Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science in … Read more

Reeking from the jaw of the living animal

Transplantation of a sheep's toothThe 1843 volume of The Dublin Journal of Medical Science contains this gem from Mr Robert Twiss, a surgeon from Kerry. Though it’s only a short report it made quite a stir on publication, and was still being cited in textbooks of dentistry many decades later. The first sentence is nothing if not arresting: 

On the 24th of April, 1841, Read more

The spear and the eucalyptus tree

spear wound of the abdomenIn 1891 The Lancet printed this case report by Andrew Ross, a doctor who some years earlier had been practising in the small Australian settlement of Molong in New South Wales: 

On Dec. 25th a messenger arrived requesting my attendance on one “Harry,” an aboriginal, who had, in an encounter with another of the race, arising through some quarrel over Read more

Toast and herbs

William SalmonWilliam Salmon was a seventeenth-century physician and a prolific writer, the author of numerous books on surgery and internal medicine. He also practised alchemy and astrology in an age which regarded these disciplines as legitimate and empirical sciences (his contemporary Isaac Newton was also an enthusiastic alchemist).

In 1687 Salmon published a book entitled Παρατηρηματα (‘Observations’, for those few … Read more

Snake poo salesman

In 1862 an Edinburgh-trained physician, Dr James Hastings, published a slim volume about the treatment of tuberculosis and other diseases of the lung. It advocates the use of substances which much of the profession would regard as unorthodox, as he acknowledges in his preface:

It has been suggested that the peculiar character of these agents may possibly prove a bar Read more

On flatulence and Darwin

On flatulenceIn 1867 The Medical Press and Circular published a series of articles by the physician Dr John Chapman on a subject in which he was a world authority: flatulence. To be fair to Dr Chapman, he was also an influential publisher and an expert in psychology specialising in ‘neurotics’ – those we would now describe as suffering from anxiety disorders. … Read more

Rattlesnakes and brandy

Around 7,000 people in the US are bitten by venomous snakes every year. Many of these are rattlesnake bites, but thanks to modern medicine there are only a handful of fatalities. The most important breakthrough of the last century was the invention of antivenin (also known as antivenom) – a remedy made by injecting rattlesnake venom into animals and then … Read more