The history of medicine can be as strange as it is fascinating. Here, Thomas Morris reveals seven of the most bizarre cases in medical history, from the curious case of a knife-swallowing sailor to an epidemic of exploding teeth…
In 1799, a 23-year-old American sailor called John Cummings went ashore for a night out with his shipmates. In the French port of Le Havre, the group watched a conjurer entertain a large audience by pretending to swallow clasp-knives. Later that evening Cummings – who was by now very drunk – boasted that he could swallow knives “as well as the Frenchman”. Cheered on by his friends, the reckless sailor put his penknife in his mouth and swallowed it. When one spectator asked how many he could manage at once, Cummings replied, “All the knives aboard the ship!” before consuming three more.
It was an impressive feat, if an idiotic one. Although Cummings did not attempt any additional knife-swallowing for the following six years, it became his ‘party piece’ after he gave a repeat performance to a group of sailors in 1805.
But it wasn’t long until Cummings began to suffer ill-effects from his unorthodox ‘diet’. Tormented by abdominal pain, eating became more and more difficult and he started to starve. He finally died in 1809 after a long illness. His doctors, who had not believed his knife-eating story, were initially mystified – until they dissected his body and were astonished to discover the corroded remains of more than 30 knives inside his stomach and intestines – one of which was even piercing his colon.
Two hundred years ago, a clergyman from Pennsylvania (identified only as “the Reverend D.A.”) developed an excruciating toothache. Beside himself in agony, he did everything he could to relieve the pain: running up and down his garden like an enraged animal, banging his head against the ground, and plunging his face into freezing water. Unfortunately, all of these attempts were in vain.
The following morning, the clergyman was pacing up and down his study, clutching his jaw, when suddenly “a sharp crack, like a pistol shot, bursting his tooth to fragments, gave him instant relief”. Strangely, the priest’s exploding canine was the start of an epidemic of detonating dentine cases – all of which were subsequently reported in a dental journal under the striking headline: “Explosion of teeth with audible report”. One young woman’s toothache reportedly terminated with spectacular effect when a sore molar burst with such violence that it almost knocked her over, deafening her for several weeks afterwards.
So, what might have caused these dramatic explosions? Numerous theories were put forward by experts at the time, ranging from sudden temperature changes to the chemicals used in early fillings. None of these suggestions, however, are particularly convincing – which is why the case of the exploding teeth remains unsolved to date.
The pigeon’s rump cure
Doctors in the 19th century employed a wide range of bizarre remedies, but few were as strange as one recommended by the German physician Karl Friedrich Canstatt. The eminent specialist in childhood diseases offered the following prescription for treating infant convulsions: “If one holds the rump of a dove against the child’s anus during the fit, the animal soon dies and the attack ceases just as rapidly.”
It was an eccentric idea, and curiously Dr Canstatt wasn’t the only medic who believed that it worked. When the director of the Children’s Hospital in St Petersburg, Dr J F Weisse, was summoned to treat a dangerously ill child one night in August 1850, he had little success with conventional medicines. In desperation he asked the parents to get hold of a pigeon. “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 – apparently in earnest.
The soldier who removed his own bladder stone
Colonel Claude Martin was an 18th-century soldier who spent much of his life working for the British East India Company. As well as enjoying a successful military career he worked as a cartographer, architect and administrator. He became the richest European in India, and also built (and flew) the country’s first hot-air balloon.
But what you may not know about Martin is that he was the first person to perform – and undergo – the medical procedure later known as lithotripsy. When he developed the symptoms of a bladder stone in 1782, Martin decided against visiting a doctor, realising that an operation to remove it would be excruciatingly painful. Instead the plucky Frenchman took matters into his own hands.
Martin designed a special file made from a roughened knitting needle set in a whalebone handle. He then inserted this homemade instrument up his own urethra and into his bladder, and scraped the stone away bit by bit. If that wasn’t bad enough, the colonel then repeated the horrifying procedure as many as 12 times a day – for six months.
Remarkably, it worked: by the end of this period his symptoms had disappeared. Fifty years later, something very similar to Martin’s technique became a standard method of treating bladder stones, thanks to the pioneering research of surgeons in Paris, who were apparently unaware of what the colonel had done. Not only was Martin the first to perform the procedure later known as lithotripsy; he was also the first patient to undergo it.
The miller’s tale
On 15 August 1737, a young man named Samuel Wood was working at one of the windmills in the Isle of Dogs in London. Walking to the grain store to fetch another bag of corn, he carelessly left a rope trailing behind him. As he passed one of the great wooden wheels the rope caught in its cogs, and before he knew what was happening he had been lifted up in the air and then deposited unceremoniously on the floor.
Picking himself up, Wood felt no pain except a slight tingling in his right shoulder. And then he caught sight of an unexpected object tangled in the wheel: a severed arm. His arm, Samuel realised with horror. Displaying admirable composure, he managed to climb down a narrow ladder and then walk to the nearest house to raise the alarm.
Losing a limb is hardly a trivial matter – so drastic was Wood’s injury that the doctors who treated the young man feared a fatal outcome. But they found to their amazement that the arm had been ripped off so cleanly that their patient’s life was not in danger. Wood recovered from his mishap within a matter of weeks and became something of a celebrity: local taverns even sold pictures of the man who had survived having his arm ripped off by a windmill. In November 1737, three months after the accident, Samuel Wood was presented at the Royal Society as a living curiosity, with his severed arm – now preserved in alcohol – also brought on stage for the assembled scientists to examine.
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 symptoms were not serious, and 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, and her parents decided that it was probably time to seek medical attention. 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. (He also noted that Sarah Ann had only one hand, a deformity he attributed to the fact that her mother had been “frightened by a porcupine” during pregnancy.)
The slugs seemed an unlikely story, and some experts suggested that the girl must be faking it: “Can the garden slug live in the human stomach?” asked a headline in The Lancet. Professor JC Dalton, a professor of physiology from New York, decided to find out the answer. He performed an exhaustive series of experiments which entailed dunking live slugs into stomach acid to see what happened. The creatures all died within a matter of minutes and were completely digested several hours later, and the professor concluded – reasonably enough – that no, slugs cannot live in the human stomach.
So what was wrong with Sarah Ann? It seems likely that her illness was mental rather than physical. But whatever it was that ailed her, it certainly wasn’t a family of molluscs munching contentedly on fresh vegetables inside her stomach.
A flaming nuisance
Halitosis – aka bad breath – is an inconvenient and embarrassing condition, but rarely a dangerous one. In 1886, a man from Glasgow – name unknown – who had been suffering from smelly breath for about a month, developed a troubling new symptom. Waking up in the middle of the night, he struck a match to look at the clock. When he attempted to blow it out his breath ignited, causing a tremendous explosion. His wife immediately woke up to find her husband belching fire like a dyspeptic dragon.
The man’s doctor had never heard anything like it, and at first nobody knew what could have caused this unusual phenomenon. But then another Scottish physician, Dr James McNaught, encountered a patient so badly affected by combustible belches that he’d had to give up smoking for fear of setting his house on fire. By passing a tube down into the man’s stomach, Dr McNaught was able to analyse the contents. He discovered that an obstruction in the bowel was causing the man’s stomach contents to ferment, producing large quantities of flammable methane.
Although potentially hazardous, this condition served as an amusing party trick. In the 1930s, one sufferer tried to light a cigarette while playing a game of bridge but found himself overwhelmed by the urge to belch. As one medical journal reported: “Being in the presence of company, he attempted to do this discreetly through his nose; he electrified his associates by producing two fan-shaped flames from his nostrils”.
And what could be more discreet than that?
Thomas Morris is author of The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine (Penguin, 2018). Find out more at thomas-morris.uk