As it is my desire to keep you advised of all the improvements in medical and surgical practice which this prolific age is ushering into being, it is my happy privilege now to bring to your notice one of the most ingenious, if not successful—the most far reaching, and deep searching, if not most likely to prove profitable, invention, ever accredited to Yankee wit and skill. It is one before which the lustre of the genius which produced the new operation for vaginal fistula must wax dim, and the discoverers of catheterism of the lungs must “pale their intellectual fires.”
The ‘new operation for vaginal fistula’ was that devised by James Marion Sims in the 1840s. It was a major breakthrough, a surgical treatment for an uncomfortable and embarrassing condition in which urine escapes via an anomalous communication between the bladder and the vaginal cavity. ‘Catheterism of the lungs’ was pioneered by the Vermont-born specialist Horace Green. It was a controversial treatment for tuberculosis which involved injecting silver nitrate directly into the lungs, using a rubber catheter passed down the patient’s throat. Both were emblematic of a new spirit of surgical adventure, and perceived as major advances. As you’ve probably worked out, Dr Gotham is drawing such comparisons ironically.
The government of the United States has immortalized its history by the issue of letters patent, securing to the inventor the exclusive right for fourteen years, of using a “Trap for Tapeworm,” a description and engraving of which are given in vol. i. for 1854, of the Patent Office Reports.
Indeed, the original patent for the tapeworm trap still exists. It was filed by Alpheus Myers, a doctor from Logansport, Indiana. Strangely, he patented not just the device but the operation for which it was designed – thus ensuring that he would be the only person in the country allowed to use it. This is not a particularly clever thing to do if your aim is to sell your invention to lots of other people.
Another article from the Medical and Surgical Reporter describes the use of this unusual contraption:
The tape-worm trap is a very small hollow tube of gold so arranged as to contain a small piece of cheese for a bait. The patient, after a fast of four or five days, is ordered to swallow the trap, with a string attached. It is claimed by the inventor that after a long-continued fast, the worm comes up into the stomach, and will then greedily seize the cheese, be caught in the trap, and can be easily pulled out.
This sounds most unlikely, not least because tapeworms live in the intestines and are unlikely to venture into the stomach, where the strongly acidic conditions would prove rapidly fatal. The inventor, Alpheus Myers, himself explains:
The cord is fastened to some conspicuous place about the patient, who is left to his ease from six to twelve hours, and during this time the worm will have seized the bait and have been caught by the head or neck. The capture of the worm will either be felt by the patient or ascertained by the motion which will be visible in the cord. The patient should rest for a few hours after the capture, and then by a gentle pulling at the cord the trap and worm will, with ease and perfect safety, be withdrawn.
The journal’s correspondent comments, with not a little sarcasm:
Imagine to yourself the satisfaction with which a man could thus sit down and fish in his own room, without even the accompanying tub of water; the patience and complacency with which, after waiting from six to twelve hours for a bite, he would then play his prisoner some hours more before landing him! Does not Mr Alpheus Myers have good reason to believe that the shade of Izaac Walton looks down upon him in anger for this innovation upon the piscatorial art?
Fishing for worms in one’s own stomach does sound a rather unappetising way of spending an afternoon. In its coverage of the development, Scientific American helpfully included an artist’s impression of this recreation:
The same article also claims that ‘Dr Myers, not long since, removed one fifty feet in length from a patient, who, since then, has had a new lease of life.’ A likely story.
Back to Dr Gotham. He continues his letter with a swingeing attack on the US patent office for even considering this nonsense:
My object in drawing the attention of your readers to it, is simply to expose the shameful ignorance, not of Alpheus Myers, but of the officers of our government, who would take money from a man for so gross an absurdity as this. There are physicians connected with the Patent Office, men whose names stand well before the country, and how they or the commissioner, could have allowed the seal of the office to be affixed to such a document… for such a monstrously ridiculous contrivance, surpasses all comprehension.
He has a point. Evidently feeling the need to conclude on a positive note, he finishes with this gem of an anecdote:
Apropos to tapeworm: I have lately seen and examined a specimen of it, 56 inches long, expelled from a patient in the New York Hospital by an infusion of pumpkin seed. Eight ounces of boiling water added to two ounces of bruised seed, was taken in one dose, at 12 o’clock, followed in three hours by an ounce of castor oil, by which the worm was expelled about 6 o’clock, with its head entire, and alive.