More astonishing than true

Astonishing caseSome stories are just too good to be true.  This astonishing tale appeared in the Medical and Surgical Reporter in 1867, repeating an unlikely-sounding yarn first reported in a Canadian newspaper, and involving a Dr Hamilton from Hamilton City in Ontario:

Some weeks since the advice of Dr. Hamilton was procured in the case of a young lad who was suffering intense pain from a severe inflammation of one leg, below the knee joint. The patient had long been afflicted with a swelling in the locality, which, however, had not until recently caused him particular pain or inconvenience. He had previously been treated by another physician for rheumatism, but Dr. H., on examination, immediately pronounced such treatment improper, and stated that pieces of bone were working out in the swelling, which would have to be extracted, believing at the time that the bones of the patient’s leg had been affected.

Dr Hamilton altered his treatment accordingly. At this point, events took a very strange turn indeed:

After the application of poultices, the swelling finally suppurated, when a large quantity of small bones made their appearance, and have since been almost daily extracted. These bones are perfectly formed and complete, and belonged to a creature of some unknown species, about the size of a full grown red squirrel.


The ribs are fully two inches in length, and bones of the legs about the same. Among the remains are two curved prongs, or feelers, terminating in a sharp point, which were evidently attached to the head of the strange animal.

‘Feelers’ make this strange creature sound like some sort of insect. A human leg-dwelling insect with bones.  Hmm.

The remains will doubtless be secured complete, but as yet those versed in natural history have been unable to form any opinion as to the species of the creature, or to surmise how it had been introduced and lived in the muscles of the patient’s leg.

Just a thought, but maybe it hadn’t.

Little pain had been experienced from the presence of the animal, until its death was occasioned from some cause, when the working of the patient’s system to discharge the foreign matter was attended with the most intense pain, and what the result may yet be, is not certain, although the lad continues in good health otherwise.

It is odd, isn’t it, that a squirrel-sized parasite caused symptoms no more serious than a slightly swollen leg.

It is the design of Dr. Hamilton to send the bones, with particular observations of the case, to the celebrated anatomist, Dr. Owen, of London, England. Those who would feel interested in investigating for themselves the facts of this astonishing case, can do so by calling upon Dr. Hamilton.

Readers who felt this case was perhaps not entirely credible were not alone. Displaying a laudable degree of professional scepticism, the journal’s editor prefaced the story with an arch little note:

This curious item we cut from a Canada paper, premising that it is undoubtedly much more “astonishing” than true. If there is such a person as Dr. Hamilton, and if he had such a case, we hope he will communicate it to the profession through our columns. If it has any foundation whatever, it is probably a case of hysterics, and if Dr. Hamilton is sharp he will expose the trick.— Ed. Med. and Surg. Reporter.

Postscript: A couple of readers have suggested intriguing alternative explanations for this strange story. One is that it might have been a teratoma, a type of tumour which often contains structures such as teeth or hairs. It might even have been the remains of a vanishing twin, a second embryo which died in the womb and was then partly absorbed by its sibling. Both seem more plausible than the parasitic-squirrel theory.

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