Here’s a strange little tale which – unusually for this blog – does not involve a single doctor, since the patient recovered from a long-standing medical condition as the result of a dream. It comes from a short paper which was read at a meeting of the Royal Society on February 4th 1748 by one of its Fellows, Archdeacon Squire.
Henry Axford, son of Henry Axford of the Devizes in Wiltshire, an attorney, when a child, was subject to convulsion fits, which followed him pretty frequently till he was 25 years of age.
Impossible to be sure, but he may have been epileptic.
After this his health appeared extremely good. At about 28 years old, going with some ladies to see Longleat, in Wiltshire, the seat of Lord Viscount Weymouth, he perceived a hoarseness come upon him, which was soon after attended with all the symptoms of a common cold, till, in about six days after his first seizure, he became quite speechless, not only losing the articulate use of his tongue, but being scarcely able to make the least noise with it. His cold quickly went off in the usual manner, and he grew perfectly well – as well in health as ever he had been in his life, but he still continued absolutely speechless. He had advice from all the neighbouring physicians, but to no purpose, for nothing they did for him could restore him to the former use of his tongue.
Loss of speech (aphasia) is sometimes, though rarely, associated with epilepsy. It is known as acquired epileptic aphasia – but it seems safe to rule this out as the cause in this case, since there is no documented case in which the onset of symptoms began after childhood. Given the extremely unusual cure which later took place, it seems likely that this condition was psychological in origin.
He continued in this dumb way about four years, till one day in the month of July, in the year 1741, being at Stoke in the above-mentioned county, he got very much in liquor, so much, that, upon his return home at night to Devizes he fell from his horse three or four times, and was at last taken up by a neighbour, and put to bed in a house upon the road.
However debauched my youth, I never once fell off a horse on my way from the pub or had to be put to bed by a neighbour.
He soon fell asleep; when, as he tells the story himself, dreaming that he was fallen into a furnace of boiling wort…
Wort is one of the intermediate products in the process of making beer, made by boiling malt in water. Young Mr Axton’s subconscious appears to have made his punishment fit the crime.
…it put him into so great an agony of fright, that, struggling with all his might to call out for help, he actually did call out aloud, and recovered the use of his tongue from that moment, as effectually as ever he had it in his life, without the least hoarseness remaining, or alteration in the old sound of his voice, as near as can be discerned.
Archbishop Squire reports that the cure was not only instantaneous, but permanent:
He was not used to drink hard; he is still alive, continues in good health, and has the use of his tongue as perfectly as ever he had in the former part of his life.