Don’t try this at home

Introduction of foreign matters into the bloodThe medical experiments of earlier centuries often look odd to the modern eye.  So odd, in fact, that it’s easy to dismiss them as stupid or gratuitously cruel.  But we need to remember just how little was known two hundred years ago: things which seem obvious today were not yet even suspected.  One example can be found in the Medico-Chirurgical Review for 1822, which reported the experiments of a French doctor, Dr Gaspard, on the effects of introducing putrid matter into the blood: 

It has been observed, in all ages and countries, that the introduction of putrid and unwholesome substances into the system, as food, has been generally followed by fevers and other malignant diseases, as the histories of famines too fully prove. The experiments which have been undertaken by Dr. Gaspard, may, it is to be hoped, throw some light upon the subject; and are therefore deserving of being widely known. The first series of experiments, ten in number, consisted in the introduction of purulent matter (generally a little diluted with water) from common ulcers, into the veins and certain cavities of the bodies of dogs.

‘Purulent matter’ means pus; and it is worth pointing out that nobody in the early 19th century understood what pus was.  Entire books were devoted to the subject, a fact I have previously discussed on this blog.  The article explains Dr Gaspard’s first experiment:

Into the jugular vein of a dog two drachms of diluted pus were injected; the animal, at the moment of injection, became agitated, and went through the action of vomiting. He whined, appeared weak, and vomited more than six times in the course of the day. An hour after the experiment there was an evacuation of excrements, and of thick, troubled urine which gave some relief. Towards evening, however, he lay sick on the ground, with his legs stretched out, the respiration insensible, and the pulse weak. Ten hours after the experiment he passed blackish, liquid, and extremely fetid stools, which brought about relief, ending in recovery. Next day the dog was well.

It sounds like a lucky escape for the dog, but I’m afraid that was not the end of her experimental career…

Two days afterwards three drachms of pus were injected into the other jugular of the same dog. The symptoms were in a more violent degree, and death supervened within the 24 hours. 

How to modify the experiment?  Use more putrid pus, of course.

In an experiment made on the 21st of September, where half an ounce of pus rather older and more putrid than in the former experiment, was injected, frightful nervous symptoms ensued, as wandering vision, excited sensibility, convulsions, hiccup, staggering, furious delirium, burning thirst, dyspnoea, palpitation, death in two hours, amid dreadful convulsions.

Dr Gaspard’s ingenuity in inflicting suffering on his experimental animals was not yet exhausted, alas.

In two experiments, where pus was introduced by the serous membrane of the testicle into the abdomen of dogs, without producing violent pain at first, there soon came on vomiting, evacuation of urine, fever, and dyspnoea. In three hours the abdomen was convulsed, drawn in, and very painful on pressure. Death ensued in twelve hours.

From ten experiments of this nature, in which some of the animals survived, Dr Gaspard concluded that it was fine to inject a dog with pus once, but if you do it repeatedly the animal dies.  Both methodology and conclusions leave a lot to be desired: deliberately infecting animals with pathogens will always carry the risk of catastrophic infection and death, however many times you do it.

At this point the investigation became downright bizarre:

In an experiment where a foetid liquid, produced from the putrefaction of cabbage leaves in warm water, was injected into the jugular of a middle-sized dog, copious stools of a liquid, fetid, and soot-coloured appearance, analogous to the dejections in melena, supervened in the course of nine hours, accompanied by vomiting and great prostration of strength. The dog lived three or four days with nearly similar symptoms, and then sank. 

The waste of canine life is lamentable; but spare a thought for whoever was responsible for cleaning out their cages.

In a similar experiment, where a putrified solution of the stalks and leaves of beetroot was used, nearly the same symptoms as above were produced.

One of the interesting features of these experiments is that ‘purulent matter’ seems to have been regarded as a category in itself, with little consideration paid to the chemical or microbial entities it might consist of.  Dr Gaspard evidently drew some distinction between animal and vegetable sources, but there is no appreciation of how these might differ.

Gaspard goes on to remark that the general effects of the introduction of the putrid matters in question, whether into the great cavities or the veins, appear to be a peculiar kind of inflammation accompanied with a species of passive haemorrhage from the mucous membrane of the intestinal canal. The remaining experiments of M. Gaspard we do not consider as particularly interesting or worthy of translation to our pages at present. We leave our physiological readers to form their own conjectures, and draw their own deduction., from those we have above detailed. 

I doubt many journal editors today would be very impressed by this attitude: “Here’s some data; draw your own conclusions.”  However, for the sake of completeness, here are my conclusions: injecting decaying matter into dogs will tend to cause death or disease.

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