The combustible countess

Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early nineteenth century, when a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press.  Charles Dickens even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, in this manner. Sometimes the body of the victim was the only thing that had been burnt, … Continue reading The combustible countess

At least it got rid of the tapeworm…

On the 14th of May, 1867, Dr Jewett of Summit County, Ohio, was called to see Joel Lenn, 27, a French coal miner, who had suffered a serious injury. While blasting coal in the works of Messrs. Cross & Payne, near this village, the blasting barrel (a 5/8 inch gas pipe four feet in length) … Continue reading At least it got rid of the tapeworm…

A bad use for good wine

This promising headline appeared in an issue of the Philosophical Transactions published in 1755.  ‘Success’ is an interesting choice of word, since all the patients died, some within a matter of hours.  One wonders what ‘failure’ might have looked like. Early medical writers made frequent reference to a condition they called dropsy.  By this they … Continue reading A bad use for good wine

Half man, half snake

Until the late nineteenth century, many people remained convinced that emotional experiences during pregnancy could have major psychological or even physical effects on the unborn child.  An 1839 edition of an American periodical, The Family Magazine, contains an extreme example, a young man called Robert H. Copeland who exhibited himself at freak-shows and county fairs: … Continue reading Half man, half snake

Difficulty getting it down

Here’s a painful tale from The Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature, published in 1823: not for children or the squeamish – and likely to make men in particular wince. On March 17th 1822 Thomas Calloway, a London surgeon, was asked to visit a ‘healthy, muscular’ man aged 44: On Saturday night, the 8th … Continue reading Difficulty getting it down

The twelve-hour tonsillectomy

Until fairly recently, tonsillectomy was quite a common procedure – and for many children their first experience of surgery.  Because it’s a straightforward operation, doctors would often recommend that children had their tonsils out even if they had had only a few minor bouts of tonsillitis.  It was even used as a precautionary measure: many … Continue reading The twelve-hour tonsillectomy

“Catch anything, darling?” “Only Granny”

The New-Orleans Medical Journal for 1844 contains this tale of a lucky escape, an ingenious doctor and a very naughty grandson: In the summer of 1837. Mrs. * * * was enjoying her usual siesta, in the afternoon of a warm day, on a pallet spread upon the floor in a cool part of the … Continue reading “Catch anything, darling?” “Only Granny”

On leeches, and how to catch them

Leeches were one of the most commonly prescribed medical treatments until the late nineteenth century.  They were a convenient way of taking blood from a patient in days when this was believed a beneficial procedure, and 20 or 30 were often applied at a time:  in one case a woman with bowel problems had no fewer than 400 … Continue reading On leeches, and how to catch them