The man who ate chalk

52 foreign bodies

In November 1774 the following extraordinary case was presented to the French Academy of Surgery, and subsequently reported in Paul Eve’s A Collection of remarkable cases in Surgery (1857):

André Bazile, a galley-slave, aged 38 years, a man of ravenous appetite, who would often eat chalk, plaster or earth, with his food, was received into the Marine Hospital of Brest, 5th September, 1774.

Strangely it is not explained why M. Bazile thought this was a good idea.

Nothing satisfactory could be obtained of the history of the case. He complained of pain in his bowels, of oppression and constipation. He vomited at times a blackish matter. He swallowed, with difficulty, solid nourishment or even eggs, but could drink fluids. No tension or swelling was perceived in the abdomen. Notwithstanding the treatment, he died suddenly on the 10th of October, in vomiting.

Given his strange dietary habits I doubt his doctors were particularly optimistic in the first place – and of course a man who routinely eats plaster or earth has probably dabbled in still more dangerous substances.  A post-mortem was undertaken.

As he was known to be a great eater, it was not surprising to find his stomach of extraordinary capacity. It extended from the hypochondriac region of the left side, even to the iliac, and was twelve inches in length.

When the stomach was opened, this is what was found within:

  • a piece of barrel-hoop nineteen inches in length and one inch in width
  • several fragments of furze, oak or fir; four of which were six or eight inches in length, and six, twelve, or fifteen lines in width;
  • a wooden spoon five inches long;
  • a spoon of pewter, seven inches, having the bowl split in two;
  • several other spoons of pewter broken into different fragments;
  • three pieces of a pewter buckle;
  • two pieces of a funnel pipe;
  • the steel for a tinder-box, weighing one ounce and a half;
  • a pipe and one piece of its funnel, furnished with thread;
  • several pointed nails about two inches in length;
  • a wooden-handled knife, closed, three inches nine lines, by twelve lines;
  • two pieces of window-glass, eighteen lines in length;
  • five prune seeds;
  • a small piece of horn;
  • a piece of shoemaker’s leather three inches long, and another of six lines.

In total 52 separate items were recovered, with a total weight of 1lb 6.5 oz.

These were presented to the Académie de Chirurgie.

And I’m sure they were pleased to have them.

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