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Morbid curiosity

Peter Gruner enjoys – if that’s the word – tales of strange historical medical phenomena

20 April, 2019 — By Peter Gruner

Is that a serpent in a dead man’s heart? Or merely a blood clot?

DO humans ever burst into flames? Charles Dickens apparently thought so. The eccentric alcoholic rag and bottle man Krook in Bleak House came to his end thanks to spontaneous combustion.

The novelist’s evidence for this phenomenon features in Thomas Morris’s clever and witty book, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities From the History of Medicine.

He presents extraordinarily strange but true stories from the medical archives of the past. Many of the incidents he notes are not for the squeamish and involve unusual growths or living things found in the body and the bizarre insertion of sharp metal utensils into certain nether regions.

In “A Hideous Thing Happened in High Holborn,” a surgeon in 1639, dissecting the body of John Pennant, discovers what appears to be a worm or snake inside the dead man’s heart.

The surgeon wasn’t the only one who was baffled, according to Morris.

“Bystanders took it in turns to probe the ‘serpent’ with a metal bodkin [needle] until they were all convinced that the object before them was a worm, snake or other creature.”

The group even signed an affidavit confirming what they had seen.

Morris, however, is convinced that the object was more likely to have been a oddly shaped blood clot.

Perhaps more disturbing was the American sailor Mr Cummings, who in 1805 is said to have swallowed more than 30 knives over several months simply to entertain his group of friends. He managed to “relieve himself” naturally of some of the blades and amazingly survived another four years. After his death several blades were found in his intestines, with one piercing the colon.

“It seems safe to assume,” writes Morris, “that Mr Cummings was not – ahem – the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

The first surgeon ever to take out his own bladder stone, according to medical literature, was Colonel Claude Martin in 1782. He described how he inserted a knitting needle-type instrument into his penis and up the urethra until it reached the bladder. Then over some extremely agonising hours he was said to have gradually filed the stone away. The operation was apparently successful.

Thomas Morris. Photo: Charlotte Machin

Mental illness has a long association with romantic literature.

One woman suffering from emotional paroxysms in the 19th century liked to deliver long passages from Shakespeare in a loud voice and with correct enunciation.

There’s also an interesting resonance between literature from the past and today’s social media. The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe, was published in 1779 about a sensitive love-torn young man who takes his own life. Suddenly youths started to dress like Goethe’s tragic hero and even emulate his melancholic behaviour. There was such alarm about copycat suicides that the book was banned in many countries.

Thomas Parr was perhaps the oldest man who ever lived. He was said to be 152 years and nine months and hailed from Shropshire.

He became something of a celebrity for his longevity and health, and was presented to King Charles I.

It was said that his long life was due to clean living and breathing country air and when he died after a sudden move to London it was because of muck and pollution.

Morris, a former BBC producer who lives in west London, believes that in 100 years’ time we will look back at today’s medical issues and practices with the same mixture of astonishment and awe.

“We should certainly bear that in mind before laughing at what doctors used to get up to in the past,” he told me.

“Medicine never stands still, and the important thing to remember is the treatments of the 18th and 19th centuries were part of a entire medical system that is now alien to us. A lot of careful thought had gone into therapies that may now seem utterly bizarre to us.”

As for the victim of the exploding tooth, from the title of the book, he was an American clergyman from Pennsylvania. In 1859, the Rev DA developed an excruciating toothache. He ran around in agony, plunged his head into cold water and even bored his head into the ground like an enraged animal.

The following morning, still in wild delirium, there was a sharp crack like a pistol shot. His tooth had burst into fragments giving him instant relief.

The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities From the History of Medicine. By Thomas Morris, Transworld, £14.99

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