The wandering musket ball

Musket ballA miraculous recovery today, taken from the pages of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. This report was published in 1708 and, unusually, written by the patient, himself a doctor. Dr Robert Fielding practised in Gloucester, and during the Civil War was a prominent Royalist. On September 20th 1643 he fought in the First Battle of Newbury, when the army of King Charles was defeated by the Parliamentarians. As well as being on the losing side, Dr Fielding was seriously wounded: 

At the first Newberry Fight, in the Time of the late Civil Wars, the Doctor was shot by the Right Eye on the Os Petrosum [one of the bones of the skull]by the Orbit of the Eye to the Scull, which was likewise broke, with great Effusion of Blood from the Wound, Mouth and Nostrils. The Surgeon carefully probing the Wound for the Discovery of the Bullet, but failing of his Intention, on the third Day after the Shot, plac’d him Horizontal to the Sun; by which Means depressing the broken Scull with the Probe, he could feel the Palpitation of the Brain, but could not discover the Bullet.

It’s not an exaggeration to describe this procedure as brain surgery – not much fun under battlefield conditions. Worse was to come; for several years fragments of bone continued to emerge from various orifices of his body.

When the Doctor began to grow cold, his Mouth closed up, and so continu’d for the Space of half a Year, till many Fractures of Bones were come out of the Wound, Mouth and Nostrils; and afterwards, whensoever a Scale of Bone was to come out, his Mouth would close, insomuch that several Years after he prognosticated to some Friends, that a Bone was then coming out, which continu’d so for six or seven Weeks, at which Time finding an Itching in the Orifice of the Wound, with his Finger he felt a Bone, upon which he made known to some Friends then present, that they should see him open his Mouth, and taking out a Bone no bigger than a Pin’s Head, he immediately open’d his Mouth.

At the second Newberry Fight it heal’d up, no Art could keep it open.

The Second Battle of Newbury took place in October 1644, just over a year after the injury had been sustained. I think the good doctor means that the wound had healed by the beginning of this battle, rather than that it healed spontaneously on the outbreak of hostilities.

After this, for the Space of ten Years, or more, a Flux of Sanious Matter issued out of the Right Nostril, and then ceasing there, it stow’d from the Left Nostril for some Years. 

‘Sanious’ describes a fluid like thin pus. Given his injuries it is quite possible that this was cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) – the liquid which cushions the brain against injury.

At length, for the Space of two Years, or thereabouts, upon Riding, the Doctor would sometimes find a Pain on the Left Side, about the Almonds of the Ear, which he attributed to Cold, but more especially after riding in a cold dark Night, which occasion’d a kind of Deafness too…

The ‘almonds of the ear’ are the tonsils – the name by which they were known to non-medics in the seventeenth century. 

and having stopp’d his Ear with Wool to recover his Hearing, one Day, either Writing or Reading, suddenly an Huffe came in the Ear, which made him start, and in the Manner not to be express’d, unless you can imagine a Vacuum; this happen’d about March or April 1670. Upon this all that Side of the Cheek hung loose, as tho’ paralytick, and under the Ear might be felt a hard Knob.

The ‘Huffe’ was, I think, a sudden noise like a puff of wind.

After this, Tumour upon Tumour appear’d on that Side under the Jaw-Bone, which occasion’d his consulting some Physicians, two at one Time, one of which suspected the Bullet, which, considering the Shot, they thought not credible. At length the Tumours coming to the Throat, if he held up his Head a little, it seem’d as if one with a Hook did pull down the Jaw-Bone; and if any thing touch’d the throat, ‘twas as painful as if prick’d with a handful of Needles; being at last persuaded to make some Applications, a small Hole appeared, after that another, and a third Part near the Pomum Adami [Adam’s apple]; by these the Bullet was discover’d, and cut out in August 1672. 

Amazing. In summary: Dr Fielding was shot in the right temple in 1643. The musket ball somehow migrated from the upper part of the skull to the throat, where it was finally extracted 29 years later. And miraculously he seems not to have been even slightly impaired by the presence of this piece of lead in his skull – and was still well enough to write about it, more than sixty years after the original injury.

One thought on “The wandering musket ball”

Leave a Reply

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