Category: Animal History

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

By Jacqeuline Schoenfeld

Like Lisa Smith, I am a sucker for animal stories. As a child (and young adult) some of my favorite movies included Homeward Bound, Babe and George of the Jungle. There is something irresistible about an American Bulldog, a Golden Retriever and a Himalayan cat that are best friends. And really, a pig that herds sheep and a gorilla who talks, need I say more? Given my intrigue for a good animal story, you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled across the following letter.

In 1732, Charles Bere wrote to an unnamed recipient to inform him/her of an interesting case concerning a horse:

Peter Clarke of Hammersmith Baker did the ninth day of January 1732 produce & show me a stone taken out of his Mares gutt which weighed seaven pounds and three quarters and measured round – Twenty inches.

Three horses standing in a field, listening to the horn of a huntsman, who is seen with his horse and hounds in the woods beyond. By Lilian Cheviot. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Three horses standing in a field, listening to the horn of a huntsman, who is seen with his horse and hounds in the woods beyond. By Lilian Cheviot. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Yes. You read that correctly…

Once my initial disbelief wore off, I did a quick search in the letter database, only to learn that a similar event occurred six years earlier.  On 14 December 1726, Zabdiel Boylston from Boston, New England informed Sloane of a horse that had consumed a large stone:

The Stone I now send you was taken out of a gelding[.] [W]hen first taken out [it] weighed five pounds & about Eight ounces, … and measure[d] round one way, seventeen Inches & 3.q’rs and ye. other was sixteen Inches & 3 quarters.

Upon reading the eighteenth-century letters, I was left wondering how and why two horses would consume indigestible objects. After all, the stone consumed by the horse in Bere’s letter was only slightly smaller in circumference than a NFL regulation size football!

After searching through a few veterinarian journals, I came across an article by Dr. Aytekin et al. in which the authors describe a condition found in horses and other animals known as ‘pica’. Pica, defined “as a depraved or abnormal appetite [that is sometimes] regarded as a sign of nutritional deficiency or boredom”, is characterized by the consumption of rocks, dirt and other indigestible objects. Dr. Aytekin and his colleagues admit that researchers do not fully understand the underlying causes of pica; however, the authors suggest that a lack of certain amino acids, vitamins, soda salts or phosphates in an animal’s diet may contribute to the emergence of pica.

Could it be that the horses discussed in Bere and Boylston’s letters were acting out of boredom or simply attempting to supplement their diets? This cannot be said with certainty but it seems like a plausible explanation for their unconventional dietary substitutions.

And while we are on the subject of unconventional diets… I think this is a good time to redirect our attention to a story from the English county of Gloucestershire earlier this year. According to an article in the Daily Mail (18 March 2015), it seems that packs of wild boars have taken a liking to hunting and eating newborn lambs in the Forest of Dean, a popular tourist site.

According to veterinarian Clare Harvey (quoted in the article), it is not strange for boars to consume meat, after all they are omnivores–but the boars’ disposition to hunt suggests that “they may have developed a taste for fresh meat”. In other words, the consumption of meat does not necessarily suggest attempts at dietary substitutions or even signal strange behavior–rather, it is the manner in which these boars have acquired meat that is less than conventional.

A wild boar on the run. Etching by J.E. Ridinger. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A wild boar on the run. Etching by J.E. Ridinger. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

So, what does a horse that swallowed a stone the size of a football and herds of wild boars roaming the Forest of Dean hunting lambs have to do with natural history in the Sloane letters? Then and now, our desire to understand the world around us seems strongest when it comes to explaining instances that seem strange or out of the ordinary. This is as evident in Bere and Boylston taking the time to write down and share their observations as Dr. Harvey’s attempts to explaining the boars’ taste for fresh meat. But Boylston’s letter also hints at the element of entertainment involved in looking at curiosities.

A sheep and two lambs standing on a meadow, with one of the lambs feeding on the mother. Etching by C. Lewis after E. H. Landseer. 1873 By: Edwin Henry Landseerafter: Charles George Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A sheep and two lambs standing on a meadow, with one of the lambs feeding on the mother. Etching by C. Lewis after E. H. Landseer. 1873 By: Edwin Henry Landseerafter: Charles George Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

According to Boylston, several people were present when the stone was removed from the gelding and many more came to see it. What really makes me smile is Boylston’s tone as he explains, “altho [the stone] was not found in an Humane … it was in one of ye. most noble of ye. brutal kind[.]” So here we are, almost 300 years later and our ability to find wonder and entertainment in natural phenomena persists.

Of a leveret brought up by a cat

Tales of cross-species ‘friendships’ always warm the cockles of our modern hearts. It is difficult not to be charmed by accounts of Koko the Gorilla’s attachment to kittens and her grief when one died, or tales of a tiger suckling piglets . Early modern people were also fascinated by these odd pairings. In 1654, for example, John Evelyn reported that he “saw a tame lion play familiarly with a lamb” at a London fair. (Evelyn also stuck his hand in the lion’s mouth to touch its tongue—not sure I’d have taken my chances, no matter how tame the lion!)

In 1743, Montague Bacon, the Rector of Newbold Verdun in Leicestershire, offered up another strange pairing for the interest of Sir Hans Sloane (BL Sloane MS 4066, f. 127). “Pray tell Sr. Hans”, he wrote to Captain Tublay, “that my brother has got a Leveret, that has been suckled & bred up by a cat”. Not quite lion and lamb status, but still…

The cat & the Leveret are as fond of one another, as can be. The Cat take’s it to be of her own kind, & sometimes bring’s live mice to it to teach it it’s own hare: and when she see’s, that the Lever[e]t has no relish of the employment, she boxe’s her ears for not learning her bus’ness, as she should do.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Both animal odd couples were clearly curiosities, but viewers would have had very different interpretations. During the Interregnum (1649-1660), the lion and lamb pairing would have had religious and political resonance. Religiously, it evoked Isaiah 11:6 and the dual nature of Christ (lion as conquest and lamb as sacrifice): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

"Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch" by Edward Hicks - under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” by Edward Hicks – under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Politically, the lion and lamb pairing also showed up in Royalist works celebrating the return of the king, such as the popular ballad “The King Enjoys His Own Again”:

When all these shall come to pass,
then farewell Musket, Pipe and Drum,
The Lamb shall with the Lyon feed,
which were a happy time indeed:
O let us all pray, we may see the day,
that Peace may govern in his Name:
For then I can tell all things will be well
When the King comes Home in Peace again

The leveret and cat pairing was a much cozier domestic matter. It took place within the home of Bacon’s brother and the cat acted as mother to the leveret, even trying to teach the leveret to hunt. Bacon emphasised the cat’s maternal instinct as overriding its predatorial instinct, so much so that he never even indicated why and how the cat came to be suckling the leveret. (But perhaps it was something like this account of another cat and leveret.) England of 1743 was at peace, but the ever-expanding British empire that brought them into contact with new people, lands and animals: could they be brought under British domestication, too? A homely little tale of predator and prey living together might have been very appealing.

Bacon’s interpretation also has similiarities with our own modern tendencies in anthropomorphization; we look for examples of nurturing behaviours–our own best selves, as reflected in the animal world. But his interpretation differs from ours, as well. Where we might read the animal behaviour as emotion (as with the video showing Koko’s grief), Bacon was more circumspect in making that comparison, describing the pair “as fond of one another, as can be”.

In any case, the real animal curiosity as far as Bacon was concerned, was not the cat and leveret relationship. In the letter, he gave as many lines to another point of interest:

I know not whether it be a curiosity to mention, that our neighbor Mr. Crawley has a breed of white, quite white Game hares. The young ones are speckled, when young, but grow quite white, as they grow up. Sr. Hans can tell whether these things are worth mentioning or not.

Now that line of enquiry is very different from our modern interests, but certainly fit with the eighteenth-century attempts to classify the world around them. When looking at accounts of animal friendships, then and now, context is indeed everything.

On Tooth Worms

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

The 9th of February is St. Apollonia’s Day and, in the U.S., National Toothache Day. So I offer you tooth-worms, which–as Nicolas Andry described them in An account of the breeding of worms in human bodies (1701)—“occasion a deaf Pain mix’d with an itching in the teeth; they insensibly consume the Teeth, and cause a hideous Stink” (85). On 3 July 1700, John Chamberlayne wrote to Hans Sloane on the matter of his own tooth worms.

Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”.

This idea was still widely held in the late seventeenth century, even by the intellectual elite. For example, at a Royal Society meeting on 18 July 1678, Robert Hooke compared a growth within a tree trunk to tooth rot. At this point, Society members digressed into discussions of worms causing rot and the removal of tooth worms. In one case, a woman extracted the worms with a sharpened quill; in other cases, “the same thing was done by the help of the fumes of henbane seeds taken into the mouth; whereby the saliva falling into a basin of water held underneath, would discover several living worms, supposed to issue either from the gums or teeth”.[1]

Old knowledge could even, seemingly, be supported by investigations using new technologies. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1684, Anton van Leewenhoek described his microscopical observations “about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth”. Leeuwenhoek started with his own teeth, “kept usually clean”. He examined other samples of tooth plaque from two women, an eight-year old and two old men.Using his microscope, he discovered several sorts of creatures, some like worms, in the plaque—so many that “they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. These creatures, though, were present in sound, healthy teeth. Could these be tooth worms?

Leeuwenhoek was not so convinced by 1700 when two of his letters “concerning Worms Pretended to be Taken from the Teeth” was published in the Phil. Trans. He had examined two worms “taken out of a corrupt Tooth by smoaking”, one of which was still alive after four days in the post (sent on 4 July 1700). Leeuwenhoek believed it came from the egg of a type of fly that laid their eggs in cheese. He rounded up more worms from his local friendly cheesemonger and ran several experiments (including watching the worms copulate).

As to how the worms ended up in the teeth… Teeth—or, flesh more specifically—were not the worms’ natural habitat. The flies took nine days to mature, but meat needed to be salted or smoked sooner. Leeuwenhoek instead believed that the worm specimens had come from a patient who

had some time before eaten Cheese laden with young Worms, or Eggs of the above-mention’d Flies, and that these Worms or Eggs were not touch’d or injur’d in the chewing of the Cheese, but stuck in the hollow Teeth.

Gnawing worms had caused the tooth pain. Or did they?

For his work on bodily worms, Andry had also examined some worms “that a Tooth-Drawer took off of a Lady’s Teeth in cleaning them”. Based on this case, Andry concluded that tooth worms rotted the teeth, but did not cause any pain. These small, long and slender worms with round black heads bred “under a Crust that covers the Surface of the Teeth when they’re disorder’d” (38).

To the modern reader, Leeuwenhoek’s argument is more sensible. Sure, there might be microscopic creatures living on the teeth, but they were not the same as the so-called tooth worms… which were really more cheese worms than anything. But at the time, Andry’s version would have been compelling. Worms were thought to breed in unclean conditions and, as Andry made clear, they could breed under a crust on an unhealthy tooth: it was the disorder in the tooth, not the worm, that caused the pain.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When John Chamberlayne, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Sloane about his own tooth-worms, he did so in the interest of advancing knowledge and reporting on an efficacious treatment. He did not ask for Sloane’s advice, but instead reported on his visit to Mr. Upton, known for his “tooth-candling” expertise. Using heat and smoke, Upton removed rheum from Chamberlayne’s gums and extracted ten or twelve worms. This was apparently on the low side, since Upton on a really good day could remove sixty worms.

Chamberlayne claimed that he ordinarily had no faith in men such as Upton (meaning: irregular practitioners, sometimes known as quacks), but many gentlemen of his acquaintance had attested to the success of Upton’s treatment. Of course, given that Chamberlayne also described his teeth as “loose and corrupted”, he may also have been willing to try anything for what must have been terrible pain!

Chamberlayne was familiar with the wider discussions about bodily worms, referring, for example, to Leeuwenhoek’s 1684 article in the Phil. Trans. Besides the report, Chamberlayne may have taken a chance to do his bit for knowledge in another way: he may have sent Sloane some tooth worms. Is it just coincidence that Chamberlayne’s letter to Sloane was dated 3 July 1700 and that Leeuwenhoek referred to worm specimens sent on 4 July 1700?

Whatever the case, one moral of the story is: choose your cheese wisely if you have bad teeth.

[1] Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. 3 (1757): 428.

On Asses’ Milk

Donkey, from Buffon, Histoire naturelle des mineraux, 1749-1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Donkey, from Buffon, Histoire naturelle des mineraux, 1749-1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It’s not often that I have an a-ha moment when reading a Daily Fail article. And it chokes me to even admit that I had one on Boxing Day as I perused “Could DONKEY MILK be the elixir of life?”.

The Sloane Letters have several references to eighteenth-century patients drinking asses’ milk. It was never held up as an elixir of life, but was thought to be particularly useful in treating lung ailments (as with the Viscount Lymington in 1722), blood problems (in the case of Catherine Henley) and emotional troubles (the Duchess of Beaufort’s hysteria in 1705). But one thing that always intrigued me was the lengths to which patients would go to get asses’ milk; why, I wondered, did it seem like such a faff to find a lactating donkey?

In 1723, Robert Holdwsorth reported that Lady Middleton had provided his wife with a goat and an ass so she could drink milk, as per Hans Sloane’s prescription. Mrs Holdsworth had stopped drinking the milk, though, as it disagreed with her. (A common complaint!) On its own, this might just seem like an act of kindness on Lady Middleton’s part—but it was likely darned helpful for the Holdsworths to have a friend in high places who could help in finding an ass.

The Duke of Bedford, for example, wanted to drink asses’ milk in 1724, as Sloane had recommended for an eye problem. Unfortunately, the Duke had been unable to procure an ass in the country and had needed to send to Streatham (another family holding) for one. As the letter was sent from his seat at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Streatham is over fifty miles away in Surrey, the ass came from quite a distance.

Asses suckling children.  From: Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy By: S.H. Sadler. Credit" Wellcome Library, London.

Asses suckling children.
From: S.H. Sadler, Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy, 1895.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As Sally Osborn tells us at The Recipes Project, there are lots of eighteenth-century recipes for artificial asses’ milk. One version included snails boiled in milk with eringo root and brown sugar. Yum.

Donkey milk is good stuff, by several counts, being the closest in composition to human milk. Although early modern people wouldn’t have known these details, Sloane and other physicians prescribed it regularly and patients were often curious to try it. Mrs Reynolds wondered in 1725 whether Sloane might recommend that she try asses’ milk to help her general weakness. He did, as he scrawled “lact. asen.” on her letter.

It turns out that asses’ milk is still hard to get today. Across Europe, the average price is over £40 per litre. Female donkeys produce only a litre of milk per day for about half they ear and can only produce milk when its foal is nearby. Not the easiest of milk to acquire… The eighteenth-century demand, it seems, outstripped supply. No wonder patients struggled to find lactating asses and settled for unappealing substitutes!

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Inspired by the season, I started playing with my database of Hans Sloane’s correspondence to see how many items from The Twelve Days of Christmas to my wondering eyes should appear. Although some substitutions were required, all twelve days are represented—and, in turn, hint at the breadth of Sloane’s collections, medical practice and epistolary network.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… an account of the King hunting partridge from 8 in the morning until four in the afternoon in August 1724. It is unspecified whether any partridge was also in a pear tree. In a stunning twist for the song, George was also hunting rabbits and the trip had to be cut short because of a storm. Safety—and partridges—first, everyone. In any case, the King and his party were very tired after such a long day.

For the second day of Christmas, I found no turtle doves, but there are pigeons. And they are just as good, maybe even better, since I’ve never heard of anyone eating dove. Thomas Hearne, in an undated letter, reported that he was coughing up blood and receiving medical help from the Duchess of Bedford. All he was able to eat was milk and pigeon. Not my usual choice of dinner, but to each one’s own.

For the third day of Christmas, I was unable to locate any foreign hens. There was, however, an odd pheasant hen sent by John Hadley in 1721. He thought that Sloane might enjoy dissecting the hen because her feathers had changed several years previously from the usual hen colours to that of a cockerel.

I hoped to find collie birds (blackbirds) or calling birds (song birds) for the fourth day of Christmas—and I found several of each in one letter! In 1721, Richard Richardson sent Sloane the eggs and nests of several types of birds, including larks, thrushes, crows and blackbirds. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for being so obliging.

Gold ring with container, supposedly--but unlikely--held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Gold ring with container, supposedly–but unlikely–held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But what about five gold rings? I happily settled for one with a fancy, though indecipherable, inscription from Charles Preston in 1699. One ring to rule them all?

The geese, laying or otherwise, posed the greatest trouble. Goose does come up in the database, but only as a description. Mark Catesby in 1724 compared another bird specimen to a goose in size and Emelyn Tanner in 1727 described a deformed baby as having down like a goose.

The only swans mentioned in the letters are pubs, though the drinkers may or may not have been swimming in their drink. For example, Richard Richardson (1729) referred to a carrier from Preston who would be staying at the Swan in Lad Lane, London. Or Antony Picenini stayed at the Swan Tavern in Chelsea, hoping that a change of air would benefit him while he recovered from (unspecified) surgery on his thigh.

There were some maids mentioned in relation to milk, but only one maid doing any milking—in this case, drinking milk rather than fetching it. In 1725, Matthew Combe was treating Sophia Howe, Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline, for a bad cough. The patient had been drinking asses’ milk, commonly given to people suffering from chest troubles.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Although there were no drummers drumming, there is at least a drum. In 1729, Elizabeth Standish of Peterborough was planning to send Sloane “a Negro drum”. No other details were given, such as where the drum came from or how Mrs Standish had acquired it. Could this be the same Akan drum still held at the British Museum?

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

There is only one reference to a piper actually piping. In 1723, Timothy Lovett reported that he had been treating his long-standing phlegmatic cough (forty years) by smoking a pipe: “I have used my selfe to smoking several years about 5 pipes a day but it is ready to make me short breathed. I find it opens and loosens ye body.” Smoking as a cure… it worked until it didn’t, apparently.

Now, the Lords and Ladies were apparently too dignified to mention their leaps and dances to Sloane, but the subject of their exercise does occasionally come up. I offer you one Lord, the Earl of Derby, and one Lady, Lady Clapham. Derby suffered from swelling and bad breathing in 1702. He was “most pusled what to do about exercise, which is so necessary, but the least causes my legs to swell so”. Lady Clapham was also ill in 1702 and her regular physician despaired of the elderly woman’s skin disorder, hard swellings all over her body. He wasn’t sure if “the cause of this disease may proceed from a great stomach & little exercise or a great surfeit of cherries in London”. Tough one…

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth's "Noon", from Four Times of Day (1736).

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth’s “Noon”, from Four Times of Day (1736).

Since I clumped Lords and Ladies together, I’ll end with an 1842 version of Twelve Days which has twelve bells ringing.  After Sloane was elected President of the Royal Society in 1727, the bell-ringers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields honoured him by ringing the bells. St. Giles only has eight bells today and, in 1727, would only have had four bells. But no matter, it’s the thought that counts and a four-bell honour is pretty darned fine!

And on that (ahem) note, I wish a Merry Christmas to all.

The Problems of an Eighteenth-Century Menagerie

One of my favourite letters in the Sloane Correspondence is a complaint from Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond (ca. 1729-1733).


I received your letter I am obliged to you
for it. I wish indeed it had been the sloath that
had been sent me, for that is the most curious
animal I know; butt this is nothing butt a
comon young black bear, which I do not know what
to do with, for I have five of them already. so pray
when you write to him, I beg you would tell
him not to send me any Bears, Eagles, Leopards,
or Tygers, for I am overstock’d with them already.

I am Dear Sir,
Your Faithfull
humble servant

(BL Sloane 4078, f. 66)

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A three-toed sloth or ai (Bradypus tridactylus). Etching by J(?) L., 1825. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Richmond established a well-known menagerie at Goodwood House, Sussex–though it was less famous than his son’s, which included more than one funny-looking Canadian moose. (If you’re interested in the Richmond family’s moose, as immortalized by artist George Stubbs, see Lisa Vargo’s article!)

The Richmond menagerie was by no means unique in Georgian England; the ability to import creatures from across the world expanded rapidly alongside British imperial ambition. Most famous, of course, was the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, which had been around since the thirteenth century and lasted until the 1830s. But across the country, aristocrats kept a wide array of exotic birds and animals by the eighteenth century. For the wealthy, such animal collections revealed their wealth, imperial connections and interests in natural history.

Hans Sloane himself collected living (and dead animals) while he lived in Bloomsbury, as Arnold Hunt reveals over at Untold Lives. As early as 1697, Sloane’s animals were attracting attention. Edward Tyson wrote to Sloane in February after hearing that Sloane’s possum had died. Tyson planned to dissect the animal the next day and wondered if Sloane would join him. In particular, he hoped that Sloane would do some research into what authors had written about possum anatomy. That Sloane’s collection was as likely to include weird pigs and cats as exotic beasts, suggests that his primary interest was to understand and to classify the natural world.

The fascination with strange beasts extended throughout society,  with touring menageries able to attract large audiences. In Man and the Natural World (1983), Keith Thomas recounts a sad case of an elephant that died in 1720 after being exhibited in London, likely made ill by the spectators giving the elephant too much ale to drink. The keepers of travelling menageries, no doubt, were primarily driven by profit. The public interest in the menageries highlights both people’s desire to be entertained and a real curiosity in the natural world beyond Britain.

What of the Duke of Richmond’s motivations for establishing a menagerie, then? The Duke of Richmond’s letter tells us that he was a discerning collector. After acquiring a basic range of powerful creatures that represented the many parts of the globe, Richmond now wanted the more unusual animals. A sloth, for example, would be ideal, being “the most curious creature I know”.  Curiosity was clearly a driving factor for him.

The letter leaves me to wonder what the Duke did with his surplus bears (…and eagles, leopards and tigers), especially given the recent culls at Copenhagen Zoo. Richmond’s description of being “overstock’d” might actually indicate that he kept the animals around. His collection, then, was also about acquisition: six bears might be a bit much, but some duplication was no bad thing. Despite his disappointment in Bear No. 6, the Duke may also have had affection for his unusual pets—shortly before his own death, he had a beloved lioness commemorated in statue-form!

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Bradypus variegatus. Image Credit: Stefan Laube, Wikimedia Commons, 2003.

Collecting animals was not an easy task. A collector might have money and connections, as Richmond did, but that didn’t guarantee that the most-desired animals would arrive. For the Duke’s sake, I hope that the mysterious “he” mentioned in the letter did manage to send back a sloth—because, really, who wouldn’t be charmed by this smiley fellow (or 200 of them)?

This summer, Goodwood House will be holding an exhibition on the Richmond family’s natural history collections.

The Preserved Puppy Proposal

Edmund Curll, a bookseller’s apprentice, wrote to Sloane in 1703 with news of “A Wonderfull production in Nature”: an unusual puppy.

Recently, a Scottish gentleman’s dog had

Whelp’d two Puppies one of them was whelp’d dead and the other that was whelp’d alive being a Male in 24 hours after voided from the fundament another Little Creature wch Liv’d 10 Hours and is now preserv’d in Spirits of Wine.

This, Curll promised Sloane, could “be produced Sr if you please to give yourself the trouble”.

Experiment on a dog. From Joannes Walaeus, Epistola duae, 1651. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Experiment on a dog. From Joannes Walaeus, Epistola duae, 1651. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By 1703, Sloane was already known for his collection of curiosities, but it was in Sloane’s capacity was secretary of the Royal Society that Curll approached him (as the letter’s address specified). Presumably Curll thought that Sloane, in particular, would be unable to resist a strange “Little Creature” born from its mother’s anus.

Dogs, of course, were often used in experimentation, so an unusual specimen may well have been of interest to the Royal Society—though I would have been more curious to examine the mother to determine whether the anal birth had resulted from a congenital problem or an injury caused by the whelping.*

In writing to Sloane, perhaps Curll was hoping to strike up a common interest with a potential patron who was known for buying books as well as oddities—or, maybe, he was just hoping to turn a quick profit on a dead puppy.

Capitalizing on (bad) luck and death was certainly one of Curll’s overall career-building tactics. In 1708, he took over his master’s bookselling after Roger Smith went bankrupt. And his career went from high to high (or low to low), as Curll became infamous as a seller of dodgy remedies to treat venereal problems and a purveyor of cheap dirty books and scandals. He was also known for publishing scurrilous and unverified biographies of recently deceased people, leading physician John Arbuthnot to (allegedly) comment that Curll was “one of the new terrors of death”.

Was it a coincidence that Curll can be spotted trying to sell Sloane a preserved puppy so early in his bookselling life? Or was the puppy a harbinger of Curll’s future approach to his career?

* My internet search history is now filled with some pretty iffy search terms and I’m no wiser, although I suspect an injury. I also discovered that there are a lot of preserved puppies available for sale on ebay and etsy, but no relevant historical pictures of such specimens.

Sir Hans Sloane, Abbé Bignon and Mrs. Hickie’s Pigeons

In 1720, Dr. Den. Hickie complained to Sloane about an ongoing dispute with a neighbour:

the Lord of the Manor who is intent upon me as a stranger to do me prejudice & particularly in destroying a few pigeons that my wife has always kept without molestation since first shee bought her estate in this Countrey.

The country in this case referred to France, not just the countryside. Dr and Mrs Hickie had moved to Meulan sur Seine from London. It was “the profes that you have given me of your friendship whilest I resided & practiced in London”, Hickie wrote, that “encourages me to take the liberty of importuning you at present”. Hickie reminded Sloane that the friendship had not been one way, as he had been sending his observations to the Royal Society on Sloane’s directions.

Sloane might not seem the obvious choice to assist with a neighbourly dispute in France, until Hickie specified who is neighbour was: one of the Abbé Bignon’s brothers. By 1720, Sloane and the Abbé had been regular correspondents for over twenty-five years (which Ann-Marie Hansen discusses in another post). Although Hickie had met the Abbé in person and been received upon Sloane’s “acc[oun]t wth a great deal of civility & friendship”, he clearly was not in a position to ask the Abbé directly for assistance. But he hoped that Sloane would intercede with the Abbé on his behalf:

a word speakeing from the Abbé at his Brother is enough to free me from the disturbance that this man designes to give me therefore I hope that you’ld contribute to protect me by your recommendation.

This is a letter that highlights the complicated routes that patronage might take. One could not just approach someone of the Abbé’s standing on a limited acquaintance, especially in France where the rules of patronage were even more stringent than in England. An intermediary was crucial. And who better than the one who had introduced Hickie to the Abbé in the first place?

But… it’s really the dispute over pigeons in this letter that captures my interest.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A rather fine pigeon. From John Moore, A Treatise on Domestic Pigeons (1765). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Pigeons were not just valuable livestock, but one that owners (or “fanciers” as they even called themselves in the 1700s) seemed to hold in great affection. The most common use of pigeons was for food, which provided a steady supply of meat year round. In his Columbarium: or, the pigeon-house (London, 1735),

John Moore argued that pigeon dung was particularly important for fertilizing crops, making medicines, tanning leather and producing salt-petre. The dung was so good that it “challengeth the Priority, not only of the Dung of Fowls, but of all other Creatures whatsoever, on the accont of its usefulness in human Life.” Moore’s chapter on treating pigeon distempers suggests the lengths that fanciers might go to care for their pigeons: special diets, imported ingredients (such as tobacco) and attentive nursing. The attack on Mrs Hickie’s pigeons must have been upsetting for the Hickies on several levels.

Alhough Hickie suggested that Bignon was attacking the pigeons because the Hickies were not local (a natural fear for anyone living in a foreign land), the reasons are likely far more complicated. Whereas there were no regulations on who might own pigeons in eighteenth-century England, French law was very clear–only lords of the manor had the right to keep or kill pigeons. This feudal right was considered to be such a fundamental mark of inequality that it was revoked in the second article of the 4 August Decrees of 1789, which were passed by the National Assembly to settle peasant unrest in the countryside during the French Revolution.

It’s unclear which brother Hickie meant, but all three brothers were firmly entrenched in the aristocracy: Louis was the Major General of the King’s Armies, Jérôme III was the Intendant of Amiens and Armand Roland was the Intendant of Paris. Such men would not have looked kindly upon mere commoners, however well-to-do, keeping pigeons.

Hickie may have been astute enough to spot the need for an intermediary in the dispute, but he had made a classic ex-pat mistake of fundamentally missing an important cultural difference. What would have been a simple matter of bad neighbourliness in England was at the heart of aristocratic privilege in France.

Citizen Science and Flying Ant Day, in 1707 and in 2013

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

“What the heck!?” I spat, as an ant flew into my mouth. The winged ants were everywhere: crawling on the ground or (seemingly) flying dozily around. It was a warm and humid afternoon and I envied the laziness of the ants. But I had a tube train to catch and I hurried off without paying them much attention. It was only when I arrived in the centre of London and spotted more ants that I began to wonder what was happening.

This was the U.K.’s famed ‘Flying Ant Day’ in which Queen Ants and the males take to the skies in their grandly titled nuptial flight. Although this annual event occurs wherever colonies of ants live, I had somehow never noticed it on the prairies of Canada–only discovering this natural spectacle about ten years ago while walking the urban pavements of London.

The 2013 rush has apparently already started, with ants in places as diverse as Cambridge and Nottingham already having had their day in the sun this week. There have also been several seagull traffic deaths in Devon, caused by the gulls gobbling down too much ant acid.

Last year, the Society of Biology enlisted the aid of “citizen scientists” to keep track of times, dates and weather conditions of sightings. What they found was that the nuptial flight occurs after a low pressure system and within a tight time frame, usually over a few days. The ants also make their flights between four and six in the afternoon.

The idea of citizen scientists compiling data for a scholarly society strikes me as, perhaps, rather familiar: early modern Royal Society anyone? William Derham (1657-1735), for example, was a clergyman by day and a “citizen scientist” by night—specifically, an astronomer—who kept Hans Sloane and the Royal Society apprised of his star-gazing. (I discussed Derham’s interests in another post.) Derham also passed on observations from other people, including Mr Barrett’s* account of flying ants in 1707.

I was lately at our friend Mr Barrets, who desired me to acquaint the Society concerning the Flights of Ants (that made such a noise in London last Sumer) that he hath for many years last past constantly observed the Flight of that Insect on the very same, or within a day or two of that very day of the Month, on which they fell in London. About the year 1689 or 1690 (as I remember) he said he saw a cloud of them, and several times since he hath seen the same. He took it for a Cloud full of Rain approaching towards him, & was much surprized to find it a vast Number of Ants only frisking in the Air, & carried aloft as he imagined only wth the gentle Current of the Air. He is of opinion that they allways come fromward the Westerly points. I hope our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately, that we may make a judgment from what parts they came. The next day after they fell in London, I remember we had in divers places many of them, particularly at Mr Barrets, & South-Weal & Burntwood. I call them Flying-Ants, because Mr Barret (who is a good Judge) said they were such that he saw.

In 1707, people were as fascinated by the sight of flying ants as we are today, with the Flight causing quite a stir in London in 1706. Although observers weren’t even sure if the insects really were ants, or why they were flying in a mass, they were clear on three points: that it was a regular annual event, that air currents enabled the Flight, and that it occurred on multiple days across the south of England.

Over three-hundred years on, we’re rediscovering that Flying Ant Day is region specific in the U.K. and is affected by weather. It is intriguing that modern science still hasn’t explained the specific triggers for the Flight of Ants and has once again turned to citizen scientists to provide a larger data set for study. Despite Derham’s hope that “our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately”, the Royal Society doesn’t appear to have taken much interest in the Flight of Ants. Maybe the Society of Biology will have more success.

If I happen to spot the Flying Ants this year, I plan to take part in the Society of Biology’s 2013 Flying Ant Day survey. This time, I’ll follow in the footsteps of Barrett and Derham by closely observing the natural world at my doorstep instead of dashing past it.

UPDATE, 22 July: The nuptial flight occurred in my London neighbourhood today, just before 5 p.m. I could not avoid observing nature on my doorstep, which had become a graveyard for a number of them. Here are two, caught in between a bit of flying around my garden. (And I did fill in my survey!)

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

*Probably Dacres Leonard Barrett, a member of the Fuller family (relations by marriage to Sloane) and occasional correspondent of Sloane’s.

Eighteenth-Century Ear Worms

In 1702, Mr. Hare, the Vicar of Cardington in Bedfordshire, wrote to Sloane with a “matter of fact”: a case of ear worms. Gory it may be, but this tale tells us much about domestic medical practices and popular scientific interests!

Hare reported that a young man—who lodged in the same house as him—had been suffering from some running humour and pain in his right ear, which he’d tried to treat with clean wool and honey. After several days, a maid in the house examined the lodger’s ear when she noticed it was bleeding. She “saw something working in his Ear like maggots” and promptly sent for a neighbouring woman to help. The neighbour’s remedy: an application of the steam of warm milk.

Hare took a look at the ear later that day, describing the worms inside as “large maggots in shape & Colour like those that commonly breed in putrefied flesh.” He began to pick out “a great number of Insects”, counting twenty-four. Although there were more worms in the ear, Hare could not extract them; they had burrowed in too deep during the operation. Instead, he left the patient “for about an hour in which time he was very uneasy & full of pain”, with a “thick bloody matter” in the ear. Fortunately, the remaining worms had started to work their way out and Hare “pickd out nine more” during a second attempt. The patient “found himself more at ease upon which we concluded that there were no more.” By the following day the young man had entirely recovered.

Illustrations from the English translation of Nicolas Andry’s An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies, London, 1701 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hare provided several details about domestic medical practices. The young man started off with self-treatment. A maid in the house examined his ear. A neighbouring woman and a clergyman (Hare) administered further treatments. This was typical of the process of seeking medical advice. Physicians and surgeons were seldom the first point of medical assistance—and some problems might be sorted out before their help was even necessary.

We also have some clues as to what sorts of treatments they tried. The honey and cotton wool would have been readily available and were the sort of basic application that one might try to treat an ear problem. According to the Countess of Kent’s A Choice Manual (1687), various types of simple applications for inflammations or injuries included honey. The milk steam also makes sense. In popular thought, milk was thought to draw worms out. But there were various ways this might be administered. In An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies (1701), for example, Nicolas Andry referred to injecting warm women’s milk into the ear.

The timing of the letter suggests that the observation was offered in response to Nicolas Andry’s treatise, which had been published in English only the year before. Andry identified the different types of bodily worms, which he attributed to eggs hatching inside the body. In the human head, for example, worms might occur in the brain, nose, eyes, teeth, or ears. An Account detailed Andry’s experiments with a microscope as he explored the inner world of the human body and its many worms—including spermatozoa. Hare called his letter as a “matter of fact” (eyewitness testimony about an observation), but it was of limited scientific value and never appeared in the Philosophical Transactions. His keenness to share his account about a timely subject, however, suggests a man who was deeply interested in science and medicine.

And the account itself reveals a man who had a very steady hand…