The hearing-aid chair

John Harrison Curtis was a prominent nineteenth-century specialist in diseases of the eyes and ears who became an intimate of the royal family.  He was also, according to some, a quack.  The sixth edition of his medical bestseller, A Treatise on the Physiology and Pathology of the Ear (1836) contains this ingenious invention: This chair … Continue reading The hearing-aid chair

Your cooker will give you typhoid

There’s a menace lurking in your kitchen.  From The Lancet, 1868: When the attention of the Academy of Sciences of Paris was drawn, some time since, by M. Carret, one of the physicians of the Hotel Dieu of Chambery, in several papers, to the possible evil consequences of the use of cast-iron stoves, but little … Continue reading Your cooker will give you typhoid

The woman who could read with her stomach

Catalepsy is a strange condition in which the patient keeps a fixed, rigid posture, even one which looks abnormal and uncomfortable.  The limbs often display waxy rigidity, meaning that it is possible to move them into any position without resistance.  It is a typical feature of a catatonic state – in which patients are apparently … Continue reading The woman who could read with her stomach

A bit of a headache

One of the things that all first-aiders should know is that blades or other penetrating objects should never be removed from a stab wound.  Extraction should only be attempted by medical professionals in appropriate surroundings, since catastrophic blood loss may otherwise occur. Those with a background in emergency medicine would doubtless wince at the treatment given … Continue reading A bit of a headache

Heart disease? Have you tried using a swing?

We’ve already established that skipping ropes should be avoided at all costs, but it’s not all bad news for those who enjoy childish pursuits. James Wardrop’s On the Nature and Treatment of the Diseases of the Heart (1831), written in an age when most forms of cardiac disease were essentially untreatable, contains some advice which reflects the frustration felt by … Continue reading Heart disease? Have you tried using a swing?

The man who fought a duel in his sleep

If you’ve ever shared a house with a habitual sleepwalker, you may be familiar with the strange experience of having a conversation at 2 am with somebody who is fast asleep.  One of my sisters went through a sleepwalking phase in childhood, and we soon became used to guiding her back to her bedroom, while … Continue reading The man who fought a duel in his sleep

Give that man a medal

On June 29th 1865 Jacques Roellinger, a private in ‘B’ Company of the New York Volunteers, asked to be released from military service.  When he appeared before an army board to make his case for a pension, he told the officers that three years earlier, in the early stages of the Civil War, he had … Continue reading Give that man a medal

Hemlock and millipedes

In September 1762 Ann James, a fifty-five-year-old woman from Boughton Monchelsea in Kent, came to the attention of Josiah Colebroke, FRS.  For some years she had been in chronic pain: She complained of most excruciating stabbing pains in both breasts, which prevented her having any rest in the night, and made her so very miserable all … Continue reading Hemlock and millipedes

The worm: a horror story

Sometimes in early medical journals a case history begins conventionally enough, before turning into something startlingly unexpected.  This is from Medical Essays and Observations, 1782: In February last a young Man was wounded in a Duel with a small Sword, which entred about four Inches below the right Nipple, and a little towards the Back; … Continue reading The worm: a horror story

Curing conjunctivitis with frogspawn

Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) was one of the most celebrated English physicians of the seventeenth century.  His Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations, 1676) contains a chapter which – perhaps optimistically – is entitled ‘Complete Methods of Curing Most Diseases’.  This is his remedy for conjunctivitis: Take ten ounces of blood from the arm, and next day exhibit … Continue reading Curing conjunctivitis with frogspawn