Tag Archives: historical

Bezoars: Persian for “Magic Hairballs”

Lisa Wood and her Swallowing Plates reminded us of the topic of swallowed indigestibles, but we still somehow missed National Hairball Day on April 27. To make up for this sad omission we feature the hairball in its most elevated state:  the bezoar.


“Bezoars” are accretions of matter fibrous matter such as hair (in cats, for instance) or plant matter (in grazing animals) that form in the stomachs of digestive systems.   The name comes from a Persian word meaning “protection from poison,” and bezoars (such as the opulently mounted specimen above) were historically prized for this and other magical properties.  The notion was eventually disproven when in 1575, when skeptical surgeon Ambroise Paré  caught his cook stealing silver and  convinced the disgraced man that if he would swallow poison and then submit to cure by bezoar, he would not be prosecuted for the theft.  The trusting man died in agony several hours later.

The hairball or “Trichobezoar” is form of bezoar, which can appear in humans suffering from “Rapunzel’s Syndrome,” the compulsion swallow hair.  The results… well, they’re not quite as fairytale-like as they should be.




Even Then, It Must Have Looked Strange

Scary hospital clowns, bizarre devices, and cadaver lab pix are just some of the medically themed gems you can turn up while perusing the photos archives of the National Museum of Health & Medicine and the Library of Congress.

Violet wand use as physical therapy in military hospital. From the Flickr set of the Otis Historical Archives of the National Museum of Health & Medicine.


Dissection room, American University of Beirut, Lebanon. Circa 1936. Can’t you smell the formaldehyde? (Library of Congress)


Apparatus for measuring extension-flexion of the wrist. World War I. From the Flickr set of the Otis Historical Archives of the National Museum of Health & Medicine.

Children’s Hospital Circus. Washington, D.C., 1923.   How many children do you see smiling in this picture? (Library of Congress)


The Birds, The Bees, & a Bag of Hay


Don’t scream. I know, I know — it looks like the nightmare creation of some shambling scarecrow who stole your pillows and stitched them into a “wife” and “kids” out in the barn.

Either that or really messed up designer pillows.

Sadly, it’s neither.  What this really represents is the 18th-century answer to Yesterday’s post — an early obstetrics training-mannequin displayed in the Museum of Flaubert and the History of Medicine, in Rouen, France

Back before they had silicon and RealDolls, if you wanted to build a woman, you had limited choices.  But this did not deter Madam Du Coudray, an inventive midwife intent on sharing her knowledge of obstetrics with ignorant provincials through models.

She took great care in reproducing the firmness and flexibility of genuine female anatomy.  To that end, a fairly sophisticated system of leather straps with wood and iron framing was employed.  But the best part has been revealed by contemporary X-rays.  Beneath the fabric and stuffing, lending a distinctly natural shape to the form, is the pelvic bone of a young woman.

Now you can scream.


Heroes of DIY Surgery: Boston Corbett


Folded shamefully away in the quilt of American history is a bloody pair of scissors used by union calvaryman. Why? Well, turns out self-castration is unbecoming in an American hero.

Just as Jack Ruby snuffed Lee Harvey Oswald before we had answers, Lincoln’s assassin was prematurely “executed” by a gunman with his own rogue sense of justice.   Though Corbett defied orders from his commanding officer, no disciplinary actions were taken, and he was initially hailed as a hero.

But then he started talking about God whispering in his ear and signing autographs “the agent of His swift retribution on the assassin of our beloved President, Abraham Lincoln.”

His fans began to worry.

When some of his fans turned to sending hate mail, Corbett’s natural paranoia blossomed.  He started reacting to requests for autographs with a drawn pistol.

“Natural” is perhaps the wrong word in this case, as Corbett’s paranoia was likely connected to his earlier work as a hatter, the mercury used in that trade and the madness associated with it and certain Lewis Carroll characters.

Whatever the cause, Corbett’s exposure to religion didn’t help.  The notion of following Christ’s example he took to mean growing his hair in long and stringy imitation of the Savior.  For years he refused to cut it.  With the genitals, it was a different story…

In 1858, upon finding himself inflamed by the sight of prostitutes walking the streets, he took matters in hand, slicing open his scrotum, stretching out the testes, and snipping his cords.  Immediately after, he rewarded himself with a prayer meeting, a long walk, and a hearty meal.  Good things were going to happen.  The assassin assassination was still years in his future.

After his moment in the national spotlight, Corbett was granted the position of doorkeeper at the Kansas State Legislature but ended that by waving around a gun and getting himself thrown in the state insane asylum.   Escaping from there, he become a reclusive farmer, living in a hole in the ground (euphemistically a “dugout”) and only occasionally emerging to wave a pistol at children playing ball on the Sabbath.   After being driven from his burrow by angry neighbors, Corbett’s history become fuzzy and he begins to fade into a sort of mythic figure.

It’s speculated that he died in a vast fire that claimed the town of Hinckley, Minnesota in 1894, though this is unconfirmed.  Also unconfirmed are stories this long-haired bogeyman had taken up residence in the nearby woods where he presumably  continued to threaten errant children with guns, the Bible, or perhaps… scissors.


Heroes of DIY Surgery: Antarctica


Yessir — a genuine photo of a genuine self-appendectomy. Conducting the procedure with all the sang-froid of a man picking through an appetizer plate is one Leonid Rogozov.

While stationed at an Antarctic Russian research base in 1961, Rogozov noticed a nagging pain in his appendix, and as the only doctor on the base, he did what any unfeeling commie he-man would do – he cut it out.  Not that he had to go it alone.  The station’s meteorologist was standing by to hold things, or at least snap pictures.

Antarctica is apparently a hotspot for self-surgery, especially for doctors stranded on isolated research stations.  In 1999, Dr. Jerri Nielson, who had been troubled by a lump in her breast, dug in for a biopsy, puncturing herself 20 times in the process, using only locally grown ice for anesthetic.  Results were inconclusive, so a second biopsy was called for (self-administered, naturally).   Results were bad, but book residuals were good.  Oprah had her on to plug Ice Bound, and Susan Sarandon played her in the TV movie.  In 2002 her ex-husband sued her for $5 million for public claims he’d killed pets in front of their kids.

Lesson learned? Self-surgery can have unpredictable results.


Heroes of DIY Surgery: Dr. Evan Kane


“Dr. Kane “likes to do things himself.” That’s how Time Magazine put in their Jan 18, 1932 issue remarking on the “old country doctor’s” preference for performing self-surgery. By this time, it had almost become something of a hobby for Kane, whose 1932 hernia repair carried out while “smiling” and “joking” in front of  press and a photographers was at least his third exercise in surgical self-sufficency.

The first was the self-amputation of an infected finger in 1919.   The second a self-appendectomy in 1921, undertaken to confirm to Kane’s satisfaction, what he believed to be his contemporaries’ a too-liberal (and sometimes dangerous) use of general anesthetics, where a mere local  would do.

Kane’s out-of-the-box thinking did not end there.  He was also one of the first to employ music in a medical setting, bringing a phonograph into the operating theater to soothe patients before surgery, and to ameliorate pain in recovery.

Progressive or not, Kane was clearly not without his ego, and later in life took to “signing” his surgeries, leaving patients with an Indian ink tattoo, a K” in morse code (— · —).


A Firsthand Account of Trepanation

trepanation_crown_trepanCheck out Neurophilosophy for a delightful interview with Heather Perry, one of the very small number of people to have drilled into her skull in hopes of finding enlightenment.

“I wrapped my head up in a towel and we got out of there. A couple of days later, we had another go. We abandoned the hand trepan and got an electric drill instead. I injected myself with a local anaesthetic and then slashed a big T-shaped incision in my scalp, right down to the bone. I was sat there in the bathroom feeling quite relaxed and they started with the drill”

And don’t miss the “Illustrated History of Trepanation” from the same site!


Anatomy Fashions from thefasionwarrior.com

Another good page of random anatomy fashion goodies….



Anatomy is subdivided into gross anatomy and microscopic anatomy. Gross anatomy, also called topographical anatomy, regional anatomy, or anthropotomy is the study of anatomical structures that can be seen by unaided vision with the naked eye. Microscopic anatomy is the study of minute anatomical…..