The bird and the bees

In August 1868 the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Norwich.  One of the members invited to present a paper was Lydia Becker, an amateur astronomer and botanist; among her accomplishments she could count a gold medal from the Royal Horticultural Society and the respect of Charles Darwin, with … Continue reading The bird and the bees

Roger ‘two urinals’ Clerk

In 1868 the Corporation of London published a slim volume entitled Memorials of London and London Life in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries.  It contained extracts from the archives of the City of London.  An editor at The Lancet read it, and found an anecdote which remained topical, half a millennium later: One Roger … Continue reading Roger ‘two urinals’ Clerk

The mystery of the poisonous cheese

In 1835 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a series of articles about cheese.  For several months New England residents had been falling ill after consuming the delicious comestible, and nobody knew why.  A Dr Alcott contributed this account of one such outbreak: At the raising of a building belonging to Seth Thomas, Esq. … Continue reading The mystery of the poisonous cheese

Nutmegs is the best spice for students

In 1584 the Tudor physician Thomas Cogan published The Haven of Health, a guide to maintaining health primarily aimed at the student.  The bulk of the book concerns food and the diet, working its way systematically through different types of meat, vegetable, fruit, herbs and spices – and paying attention to their medicinal properties as … Continue reading Nutmegs is the best spice for students

The supernumerary leg

Before the advent of antenatal screening, birth abnormalities were far commoner than they are today.  Early medical journals had a particular fascination with these ‘monstrosities’, printing regular reports of children born without limbs or with anomalous or absent internal organs.  Reading these reports today, there is often little sense that they were printed for any … Continue reading The supernumerary leg

Monsieur Mangetout

Medical journals usually pride themselves on presenting cutting-edge research, but in 1851 The Medical Examiner reported a case which was already half a century old.  It’s not clear what they thought it added to contemporary scholarship, but it’s certainly a good story. Charles Demery, a native of Benche, on the frontiers of Poland, aged 21, … Continue reading Monsieur Mangetout

Put a bandage on it

The treatment of venereal disease was one of the main functions of the medical profession from the Middle Ages until the adoption of antibiotics in the late 1940s greatly reduced their incidence and seriousness.  It was an uphill battle: although they had some success with mercury, there was little that was truly effective against infections … Continue reading Put a bandage on it

The black sheep

In the days before the NHS, when physicians charged patients for their services, there was an unspoken agreement that members of the medical profession would waive their fees when the patient was a colleague or a member of their family.  In countries with no national health service this convention persisted for longer: in the late … Continue reading The black sheep