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.

BH combustion

Sometimes the body of the victim was the only thing that had been burnt, suggesting that the combustion … Read more

At least it got rid of the tapeworm…

head injuryOn 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) struck him near the external Read more

A bad use for good wine

claret

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 meant a swelling caused by … Read more

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:

This most singular being, Read more

Difficulty getting it down

priapism caseHere’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 of March, he came Read more

The twelve-hour tonsillectomy

19th century tonsillectomyUntil 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 of the child migrants to Read more

“Catch anything, darling?” “Only Granny”

Fish-hook headlineThe 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 house :—and while she was Read more

On leeches, and how to catch them

Leech headlineLeeches 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 attached to … Read more