The incredible shrinking man

remarkable electrolysisIt must have been a slow news week when The Medical Record decided to print the following story in July 1874. Any journalist is familiar with the terror of an imminent deadline and acres of empty space that need to be filled, but I’d like to think I’d never be so desperate that I had to resort to filling it with this:

Three years ago General Kilpatrick had a remarkable operation performed upon him by a physician in New York, who removed a fleshy formation from the general’s neck by filling it full of needles, and then attaching a galvanic battery to it. Ten minutes after the current of electricity was let on, the bunch had entirely disappeared. A more extraordinary operation than this was, however, performed by a Whitehall physician a few days ago, if we are to believe the Whitehall Times.

Here’s a tip: don’t believe the Whitehall Times. And maybe try to check the story in some way before printing it. Especially if it’s as implausible as this one.

A gentleman who had been suffering from a superabundance of adipose tissue…

A kind way of saying that he was morbidly obese.

…consulted the physician, asking for relief from its burden. The doctor told him he could relieve him if he would consent to a painful operation. The gentleman consented, and with the medical practitioner entered the telegraph office at that place. The fat man was requested to remove his coat and vest, after which the physician surrounded him with wires, attaching the ends to a powerful battery.

Any sensible patient might have been a little sceptical of this unorthodox behaviour.

At a signal from the doctor, Manager Eddy let on the current. The patient writhed and twisted when he felt the current passing around him; still he stood like a martyr. Presently he began to shrink; he grew smaller and smaller; his clothing hung in bags about his fast diminishing form; the doctor felt much pleased at the result of his experiment; while the formerly fat man’s joy was very great, although he seemed to be suffering acute pain. All of a sudden there was heard a loud clicking at the instrument, as if Pandemonium’s great hall were let loose. The operator sprang quickly to answer the call. He ascertained it was from the New York office. He quickly asked, “What’s up?” An answer came back as if some infuriated demon was at the other end of the wire. “What in thunder are you about? Cut off your wires quick—you are filling the New York office with soap grease.”

However did this tall tale make its way into the pages of a major medical journal? Though the author claims the case took place ‘a few days ago’, the story had appeared in several newspapers nine months earlier. Heads should roll.

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