All flesh is grass

Cases of foreign bodies finding their way out through the surface of the bodyI imagine that most doctors have had to treat at least one patient who has been unlucky or stupid enough to end up with a foreign body lodged in one of their orifices.  Early journals are full of such cases, from pieces of metal swallowed by mistake to insects which took up lodgings in a patient’s ear.

In 1840 the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal reproduced highlights of a paper by a French medic, Dr Vigla, about cases of foreign bodies in the trachea and oesophagus.  It contains this example, in which a piece of grass-seed found an unusual exit from the body:

Some young persons were amusing themselves in trying whether, with an ear of grass placed on the tongue, they could pronounce certain words without swallowing the ear of grass. Two of these young persons placed the awns first, and the opposite end outwards, and when they tried to speak, they swallowed the ears, but suffered from this no inconvenience. A third, aged about 16 years, placed the ear in the opposite direction on his tongue, and scarcely had he pronounced the two or three words agreed on, than the ear slipped down the throat. The young man immediately was deprived of the power of speech, and breathed with such difficulty that he appeared to be suffocated; and in this state he remained several minutes. All means were used by his companions to make him eject the foreign body, but all were unavailing. The fits of choking, however, were abated, though breathing was very much oppressed. Next day, the patient was attacked by shivering, followed by fever, cough, spitting of blood, and all the symptoms of a formidable disease of the lungs. Active remedies were employed.

There is no word as to what these ‘active remedies’ might have been.  In any case, they had no effect: the grass needed no assistance in reappearing:

On the seventh day of the disease, a tumour the size of an egg appeared between the sixth and seventh true ribs, causing acute pain. Suppuration followed, and the abscess opened of itself on the thirteenth day, when, after the discharge of much fetid matter, the mother of the patient withdrew a body which turned out to be the ear of grass. The young man completely recovered.

So where had it lodged?  Opinions differ:

Labath, who communicated this case to Hevin, was of opinion that the ear of grass had slipped into the windpipe. M. Vigla and Hevin think that it was in the oesophagus. It is not very easy to decide; but the history of similar cases inclines us rather to the opinion of Labath, that the ear of grass dropped into the larynx, and thence into the trachea and bronchus. It appears that the abscess was formed in the left side, three inches below the left nipple.

There are plenty of examples of metallic objects (pins, needles, even bullets) emerging from the surface of the body having lodged in the internal tissues – but an ear of grass seed is certainly one of the more outlandish objects to do so.

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