The woman who could smell with her feet

Case of catalepsy with transposition of the sensesNews of a curious case reaches London from France:

Mademoiselle Melanie had enjoyed good health up to the age of twenty-one, when she began to suffer from dry cough, with pain in the chest and headache; in January, 1841, she was attacked by pleurisy of the right side, and since then has continued to suffer from pain in that region.

A doctor from Caen, Dr Duvard, first visited Mlle Melanie in July 1841 and treated her for pleurisy, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the lungs.  The treatment involved giving her an enema, and a few hours after this was administered she suffered

a most violent attack of hysteria, which continued for several hours. The attacks of hysteria recurred, with the same violence, for several successive days, and seemed to be excited by the ingestion of food, which the patient continued to eat with avidity, in spite of remonstrances.

Six days later she lost the power of speech, and then fell into a fit of catalepsy, a state in which she ceased to respond to external stimuli:

During the cataleptic accesses there was complete insensibility of every part of the body; the limbs remained in the most fatiguing positions without stirring; the respiratory movements were imperceptible, and the pulsations of the heart, which could scarcely be felt, were from 60 to 70 in the minute.

These cataleptic attacks lasted for over a month, when a new symptom appeared.

Five weeks after the first attack of catalepsy, Mlle. Melanie fell several times into a state of natural somnambulism. She would get up without opening her eyes, walk about her room, arrange the furniture, and enter into conversation with those about her, often mentioning circumstances which she would have wished to conceal; after remaining in this state for several hours, she fell into a state of catalepsy, indicated by apparent suspension of the respiration and complete silence.

On October 12th Dr Duvard noticed something very strange.

Having placed my hand on the epigastric region, I noticed that her countenance became expressive of pain. I then placed my lips on the pit of her stomach, and asked her several questions; to my infinite astonishment she answered correctly, for although I had read most of the histories of this kind, recorded in different works, I did not believe one of them. During this first examination I made numerous experiments, which led me to conclude that there was a transposition of the five senses to the pit of the stomach.

This sounds outlandish, but Dr Duvard assures his readers that he conducted numerous experiments in front of reliable witnesses to prove that this was no fantasy.

There was no sensibility in any part of the body, except over the pit of the stomach, the palms of the hands, and soles of the feet. Thus we might pinch the skin or pierce it with pins, pull out the hair, tickle the nose, &c., without eliciting any sign of feeling. On the contrary, if the pit of the stomach, soles of the feet, or palms of the hands were touched even with the point of a feather, the girl immediately withdrew the part touched, and her countenance indicated displeasure.

The phenomenon was not limited to the sense of touch: her ears had apparently migrated to her midriff too.

The ears appeared to be insensible to sound and the loudest noise did not attract her attention; but when a small bell was agitated over the sensitive parts, her countenance shewed that she heard the noise. If the lips were placed in contact with the sensitive parts, she heard everything that was said, although the voice was so low that it could not possibly reach her ears. 

All rather unlikely.  But there’s better to come:

The senses of taste and smell were not exercised by their natural organs, but were very acute in the sensitive parts. Thus, we filled the nose with assafoetida, or tobacco; placed bottles of ether, concentrated ammonia, &c., under the nose, without producing the least effect; but when a small portion of a sapid body was placed in contact with the sensitive parts, the patient distinguished it at once. Thus she recognised and named, one after another, the syrups of poppies, vinegar, gum, and capillaire, wine, water, orange-flower water, Seidlitz water, currant jelly, &c., although only one or two drops of each substance was placed on the palm of her hand.  When a few grains of snuff were placed on the sole of her foot, she sneezed at once, and thus easily distinguished common French snuff from English snuff.

Well, who can’t tell French snuff from English snuff using their feet? At first Dr Duvard thought that his patient could also see through her stomach, although – thank goodness – a few experiments disproved that idea.

She could distinguish and name every kind of French coin placed in her hand, but not the name of the sovereign under whose reign they were struck; she could distinguish a bit of silk from a bit of cloth, but not their respective colours. At the second sitting, she succeeded in spelling the word commerce, written in large letters, and placed on the pit of the stomach; this required considerable efforts, and she complained for a long time that the attempt produced great fatigue.

Of course; it’s tiring, reading with your stomach.

…in subsequent experiments, however, she was never able to distinguish any of the letters of the alphabet, when placed in contact with the sensitive parts.

Well fancy that.  The report concludes with Dr Duvard’s account of the treatment.  We are told that

He attempted to magnetise the patient; during the first three sittings she fell asleep, and remained so for several hours, but afterwards all attempts of the kind failed to produce any effect. The use of electricity seemed to be attended with more beneficial results than any other remedy; after the first day the fits of catalepsy and hysteria became less frequent and violent, and the patient returned, much improved, to her friends in the country.

Another triumph for nineteenth-century medicine.

[Source: Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, 1842]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.