The stone-swallower

swallowing stonesEighteenth-century authors were fond of giving their books ridiculously long titles – often so lengthy that they weren’t titles at all, but rather pedantic descriptions of each volume’s contents. Today I came across the longest book title I think I’ve ever seen – and it’s a medical book, first published in 1781: Hugh Smythson’s Compleat Family Physician. (That’s only … Read more

The dentist who made the blind see

Lost sight restored by dental treatmentOne interesting aspect of nineteenth-century medicine is the fact that many clinicians were convinced that every ailment could be traced ultimately to the same cause. Some were sure that most illnesses were triggered by problems with the liver; others that a disordered digestion could manifest in symptoms all over the body.  Towards the end of the century, French physicians became … Read more

The snuff-eating nose centipede

A worm of the centipede kindHere’s an alarming pair of cases reported in the first volume of the Medical Essays and Observations, published in 1764:

A woman of a good heal constitution, and about thirty-six years old, began to complain of a fixed pain in the lower and right side of her forehead.

The adjective ‘heal’, an archaic form, means ‘whole’ or ‘healthy’.

During Read more

Deafened by a kiss

Loss of hearing from kiss upon the earSome injuries recorded in the medical literature were not the result of some ghastly accident, but had an apparently innocuous cause. Here’s an example from the Archives of Otology, published in 1880. It was reported by Daniel Bennett St. John Roosa, a specialist in diseases of the eye and ear who was one of the founders of the Manhattan … Read more

A leech on the eyeball

Leech to the eyeBloodletting is an inescapable theme of a medical blog set largely in the nineteenth century. Although venesection (opening a vein) was frequently used, for minor complaints the weapon of choice was the leech, which could extract a small amount of blood relatively painlessly. Doctors varied the numbers of leeches applied according to the severity of the complaint – as many … Read more

The mystery of the poisonous neckerchief

poisonous scarfIn 1873 The Medical Times and Register published an unusual case report from one  Joseph G. Richardson, a doctor from Philadelphia:

J. B., a farmer, 74 years old, residing near Darby, in the vicinity of Philadelphia, came under my care in the out-patient department of the Pennsylvania Hospital, January 27, 1873. His neck, face, and head were much swollen, Read more

Sleeping with the fishes

One of the overwhelming priorities of medicine in the eighteenth century was the improvement of resuscitation methods. Drowning was a major cause of death, and physicians realised they needed better emergency procedures to treat those who had fallen into rivers, canals and lakes. Medical societies were set up in several European countries to investigate possible resuscitative techniques. In 1774 the … Read more

The tin whistle

Samuel Gross was a giant of nineteenth-century American surgery, the author of numerous influential textbooks, including the first manual of pathological anatomy ever published in the United States. He is also the subject of one of the great American paintings, The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, which depicts him performing an operation on a young man’s femur.

One of Gross’s … Read more