Dragon breath, vomiting slugs and pigeon remedies: 8 bizarre medical stories from history
Medical history is a treasure trove of weird and wonderful tales of mysterious illnesses and weirder remedies.
The man who swallowed ‘all the knives aboard the ship’
In 1808, an American sailor was admitted to Guy’s Hospital in London, complaining of persistent abdominal pain. Doctors could not understand the cause of his illness, and refused to believe his explanation that he had swallowed ‘dozens’ of knives.
A few months later he died, and doctors discovered that the sailor had been telling the truth. Inside his stomach and intestines were the corroded remains of more than 30 clasp knives, swallowed as part of a horribly misguided party trick.
On one memorable occasion, he had swallowed as many as 14 in a single session – but it was some years until he paid the inevitable price.
A boy who honked like a goose
In 1848, the German surgeon Karl August von Burow was summoned to treat one of the strangest cases of his, or anybody else’s, career. A boy from a nearby village was struggling to breathe, and every time he exhaled he honked like a goose.
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Dr von Burow learned that the local children liked to blow through the throat of a recently-killed goose to imitate the bird’s cry. His young patient had been playing this unconventional game when he was overcome by a coughing fit, and inadvertently inhaled the goose’s larynx.
The surgeon performed a tracheotomy and managed – eventually – to remove the goose’s throat from inside the boy’s. The patient made a good recovery.
The tapeworm trap
One of the more unusual medical devices ever sold was patented in 1854 by an American doctor called Alphonsus Myers. He described his invention as a ‘trap for tapeworm’: it consisted of a hollow gold tube baited with a piece of cheese, and attached to a length of string.
The patient was supposed to swallow this apparatus and then wait for a hungry tapeworm to seize the cheese. At this point, Dr Myers said, ‘by a gentle pulling at the cord the trap and worm will, with ease and perfect safety, be withdrawn’.
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The inventor claimed, implausibly, that he had used it to catch a monster tapeworm more than fifty feet long. In truth the device was both ridiculous and useless, and within a couple of years was no more than a historical curiosity.
A human dragon
In 1889, a 24-year-old factory worker from Manchester woke up earlier than usual, and struck a match in order to look at the clock next to his bed. When he tried to blow out the flame there was a sudden explosion like a pistol shot: his breath had ignited so violently that his face was burnt and his moustache caught fire.
After several such incidents he was forced to give up smoking, and did his best to avoid naked flames. His doctor had the bright idea of passing a tube into the man’s stomach in order to analyse what he found in it.
He discovered that an obstruction in the patient’s bowel was causing his stomach contents to ferment, producing large quantities of flammable methane. Having identified the cause, the doctor successfully used trial and error to find a drug that prevented his patient from breathing fire like a dyspeptic dragon.
The pigeon’s rump cure
Physicians in the 19th Century employed innumerable strange treatments, but few were as bizarre as that employed by a doctor from St Petersburg, Dr J F Weisse.
Summoned to treat a dangerously ill child one night in August 1850, he had little success with conventional medicines. So in desperation he decided to try a folk remedy of which he had heard good things.
He asked the parents to get him a pigeon, and then placed its bottom next to that of his young patient. “After the bird had been applied to the child’s anus,” he recorded in a medical journal, “it gasped for air several times, closed its eyes periodically, then its feet twitched in spasm and finally it vomited.”
The child made a miraculous recovery, although the same could not be said for the pigeon: after refusing its food it died a few hours later. When news of the ‘pigeon’s rump cure’ reached London’s medical journals, it caused general hilarity.
But Dr Weisse rose above the ridicule, urging further research: ‘Experiments with other poultry are necessary,’ he wrote.
Killed by his false teeth
When Mr H., a pharmacist’s assistant from London, fell ill in the spring of 1842, nobody suspected the real cause. The 35-year-old had always suffered from asthma, so his family naturally assumed that this was the reason that he was struggling to breathe.
But this time the usual remedies – enemas, bleeding, laxatives – failed to have any effect. He died a few days later, and when his doctors performed an autopsy they were astonished to find a partial set of dentures lodged inside the patient’s chest cavity.
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The man’s father recalled that the dead man had accidentally ‘swallowed’ them thirteen years earlier; the doctors concluded he had in fact inhaled the false teeth, which had become lodged in his airway before causing the fatal event, more than a decade later.
Slugs in her stomach
In the summer of 1859, a 12-year-old girl from London named Sarah Ann began to complain of nausea. Her parents remained unconcerned until one afternoon she vomited a large garden slug, described as “alive and very active”.
Sarah Ann then threw up seven more slugs, of various sizes but all alive. Asked if she’d eaten anything unusual, the girl told the family doctor that she liked to snack on lettuces from the garden.
The physician concluded that she had unwittingly swallowed a family of young slugs that had grown to maturity inside her stomach over the course of several weeks. The case prompted one of the best headlines you’ll ever see in a medical journal: ‘Can the garden slug live in the human stomach?’
The answer, unsurprisingly, is no, they cannot. Whatever was wrong with Sarah Ann, it was not a family of molluscs, contentedly munching on vegetables in her stomach.
The self-inflicted bladder stone operation
One of the most commonly encountered medical conditions in the eighteenth century was bladder stones. The only effective treatment was the operation known as lithotomy. Performed without anaesthetic, it was excruciatingly painful, and patients often died from infection.
In 1782, a French expatriate living in India came up with an ingenious alternative. Claude Martin invented a new type of instrument, a file made from a knitting needle. He inserted this implement up his own urethra three or four times a day, and used it to file away the stone bit by bit.
This was an uncomfortable experience, but apparently better than enduring a painful operation. And, remarkably, 6 months later he declared himself cured – having become one of the few people not only to invent a new operation, but also to perform it on their own body.
The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris is out now (£8.99, Corgi)