The incredible sleeping woman

Sleepy woman

The first issue of Medical Observations and Enquiries, a medical journal founded in London in 1757, contains this sad little tale:

Elizabeth Orvin, born at St. Gilain, of a healthy robust constitution served the curate of that place for many years very faithfully, till the beginning of 1738, that she became very sullen, uneasy, and so surly, that the neighbours said she was losing her senses. Towards the month of August, she fell into an extraordinary sleep, which lasted four days; during which time, she took no manner of nourishment, neither was it possible to rouse her.

Mme Orvin did finally wake up, but for the next ten years she slept for seventeen hours a day, from 3 am till 8 pm, and was usually only awake at night.  Dr Brady visited her in February 1756, and found her fast asleep at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  She was stiff as a board and could not be roused:

I put my mouth to her ear, and called as loud as I could, but could not wake her; and to be sure that there was no cheat in the matter, I thrust a pin through her skin and flesh to the bone. I kept the flame of burning paper to her cheek till I burned the skin, and put volatile spirits and salts into her nose, and lastly, thrust a little linen, dipped in rectified spirit of wine in her nostril, and kindled it for a moment: all this was done without my being able to observe the least change in her countenance, or signs of feeling.

Methods not – as far as I know – currently used by NHS sleep clinics.  Three hours later she awoke:

About eight, she turned in her bed, got up abruptly, and came to the fire. I asked her several questions, to which she gave surly answers. She was gloomy and sad, and repeated often, that she would rather be out of the world, than in such a state. I could get no satisfactory account from her, about her sickness; all that I could learn from her was, that she felt a heaviness in her head, which she knew to be the forerunner of her disorder, and which determined her to go to bed.

On some occasions she slept for so long that she had to be fed (while still asleep) through a funnel.  The local doctor told Dr Brady about some of the tactics they had adopted in attempts to wake her up:

…being whipped till the blood ran down her shoulders, of her having her back rubbed with honey, and her being exposed in a hot day before a hive of bees, where she was stung to such a degree that her back and shoulders were full of little lumps or tumours. At other times, they thrust pins under her nails, together with some other odd experiments that I must pass over in silence, on account of their indecency.

She was, it seems, beyond the help of medicine.

This poor woman is now fifty five years of age, of a pale colour, and not very lean. She never sees day light, but sleeps out the longest day in summer; and, in winter, begins to sleep several hours before day, and does not awake till two or three hours after sunset.

Her case seems to have been an isolated one.  But it’s interesting that her symptoms were very similar to those of Encephalitis lethargica, a mysterious sleeping-disease which swept the globe in the early twentieth century.


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