Category: Philosophical Transactions

An Invitation to View a ‘Monster’

Amidst Sloane’s letters is a handwritten advertisement:

An admirable Curiosity of Nature being a Surprising Instance of a monstrous and preternatural birth lately in France to Children Joyned together in the Body. With Two Backs one Breast one Heart and Two Entrails one Head and Two faces Three Tongues in one mouth. The Bodies having their Proper Members so that Monster has Four arms and Four hands on which are sixteen Fingers and Four Thumbs Four Thighs Four legs and Feet and Toes proportionable with perfect nails on both Toes and Fingers. It being at full birth and lived the Space of Four Days. This wonderful curiosity may be brought to any gentleman’s House.

It is an intriguing note, lacking an author’s name or date. But it makes me wonder: did Sloane arrange to view this curiosity?

There are several accounts of unusual births—severely deformed children or animals—in Sloane’s correspondence, some of which appear in the Philosophical Transactions. Monstrous births were a source of great fascination to early modern people; besides being the subject of many treatises and pamphlets, such curiosities were regularly exhibited (for a fee) across Europe.

Nicolaus Tulpius, Conjoined twins (1652).
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The term ‘monster’ comes from Latin, meaning portent or warning. And this was how many people understood them—as a message from God that indicated the mother’s sins or served to caution the wider community about its morals. Other people were simply curious and wanted entertainment, keen to pay the money to see something so unusual. Natural philosophers such as Sloane, however, wanted to understand why such births occurred. Perhaps they were part of the natural world after all, just a matter of excess, or one of God’s secrets placed in nature for man to uncover. But first, natural philosophers needed to distinguish the real from the fake. Given the possibilities of profit and fame, trickery was certainly possible.

Sloane did not indicate that he saw the curiosity. He was a busy man and probably would have relied on word of mouth to decide whether or not it was worth his while to view it. Nonetheless, it is interesting that he bothered to keep the invitation at all. It is arguable that this was simply a random scrap of paper that was caught up in his papers, but I think it is more likely that the invitation acted as a memory device, either to recall that a particular curiosity had come to London or that it was one he had seen. Most significant of all, however, is that he never printed an account by anyone in the Philosophical Transactions that matches the description of this curiosity.

Not all monsters, apparently, were interesting—either as a hoax or medical case!

An International Community of Scholars

By Melanie Racette-Campbell

Latin was the international language for academics and intellectuals during Sloane’s lifetime; an Englishman and an Italian might not share a common modern language, but if they were educated they both knew Latin. Many of the Latin letters were published in whole or in part in the Philosophical Transactions, but Latin was also used for personal correspondence, requests for patronage, and medical consultation – in other words, for the same range of purposes as Sloane’s correspondence as a whole.

Most of Sloane’s Latin correspondents were either professional or amateur scientists of some sort, especially botanists, anatomists, and naturalists. Many of the writers of Latin letters either were or would become fellows or foreign members of the Royal Society, and the content of the letters reflects this: they were almost always on scholarly matters, at least in part. These were generally short reports on a specific incident or findings, as for example the report sent by a certain Dr. Bullen about an unusually large bladder stone or barometric records sent from Switzerland by Jacob Scheuchzer, a physician and naturalist. A particularly frequent correspondent, Pieter Hotton of Leiden, sent catalogues of recently published books or else the books themselves to Sloane. Along with scholarly matters, the Latin correspondents (as Hotton did here) often included messages to mutual friends in England, requests for news about these friends, and announcements about significant personal events. The Latin letters were social as well as scholarly, and show us a tightly knit international community of scholars.

But the Latin letters came not only from continental Europe: more of Sloane’s Latin correspondents wrote from the United Kingdom than any single other country, and one letter included text copied from a letter from a Jesuit priest in Japan. When residents of the British Isles wrote in Latin, they were generally writing for scholarly purposes, just like the European letter writers. In fact, two letters written in Latin by an English speaker, the Scottish surgeon/apothecary Patrick Blair, outline a plan for a scientific book on medicinal plants to be written in Latin. This suggests that even between those who shared the same language, Latin was often still considered the right language for intellectual matters.


Melanie Racette-Campbell, who is just finishing her Ph.D. in Classics at the University of Toronto, worked as a research assistant on the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence Online Project. She received her B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology and M.A. in Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies from the University of Saskatchewan. Her research interests include Latin poetry and gender and sexuality in the classical world.

Glimpses into Daily Life: The Earthquake of 1703

In January 1703/4, Ralph Thoresby (an antiquary of Leeds and fellow of the Royal Society) sent Sloane a collection of accounts of an earthquake in the north of England on Childermas Day (December 28th) around five in the evening. Thoresby’s letter, and a second one on the earthquake, appeared in the Philosophical Transactions 24 (1704). The earthquake had been strongest in Hull, so Thoresby wrote first to the “most suitable person I know” there: Mr Banks, The Prebendary of York and Vicar of Hull. Thoresby also had accounts from friends and relatives across the north of England: his sister (a Parson’s wife), a minister who was related, and a minister named Mr Travers. The story is interesting on its own merits, but it also reveals much about the overlap between religion and science, the collection of scientific information and the activities of daily life.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Hull (17th century). Source: Wikipedia, Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection, University of Toronto.

Mr Banks had relatively little to say for himself, having been walking through the noisy town streets on his way “to visit a sick Gentleman”. His Reader, however, the “ingenious good man” Mr Peers, had been writing at his desk and was “affrighted” when the desk and chair began to heave and the chamber and window shook. Mr Banks had twenty more such accounts from tradesmen. Mrs Banks had been concerned about the china in her closet [small private room] falling on her, while the rest of the family heard the pewter and windows rattling. Some of the accounts were more amusing. A neighbouring gentlewoman found her chair lifted so high that she thought her “great Dog had got under it”. And in a nearby ale house, the company was so merry that they did not even notice the chimney falling down. Only the landlady’s mother, who was in a chamber on her own, “felt the shock so violent, that she verily believ’d the house to be coming down” and nearly fell over. The accounts from Thoresby’s relatives and friends were similar.

The earthquake came one month after the largest natural disaster in the British Isles, the Great Storm of 1703. Mr Banks concluded that “Famines, Pestilences and Earthquakes, are joined by our Blessed Saviour, as portending future calamities.” In this case, he feared “the approach of some more dreadful Earthquake” and he prayed “God of his infinite mercy to avert his future Judgments.”

As Thoresby’s reports suggest, the exploration of the natural world and a firm belief in God went hand-in-hand in the eighteenth century. Thoresby had a longstanding interest in natural events such as unusual weather or earthquakes, and several of his letters on these subjects were published in the journal. Thoresby was typical of his time. Like Mr Banks, he believed that these events were signs from God. But these were not merely punishments. By Divine Providence, God might show his favour by protecting people from the worst. The terrible storm and the recent earthquake were warnings to be heeded. But if one could uncover the cause of these events, it might be possible to prevent them in the future.

NPG D27320; Ralph Thoresby by J. Baker, after George Vertue, after James Parmentier, line engraving, circa 1696 (with permission of the National Portrait Gallery)

Thoresby’s letters also reveal his information gathering process. Although Thoresby had not been in Hull, he knew just who to ask. In less than a month, Thoresby had heard back from Mr Banks, who had spoken to at least twenty-five people about their experiences. Thoresby then passed it on to Sloane who, as Secretary of the Royal Society, might publish the account in the Philosophical Transactions. It was, nonetheless, important to establish the credibility of one’s sources. Mr Banks was “suitable”, Mr Peers “ingenious good” and several of the others were listed as ministers, gentlewoman, or “Parson’s wife”. These were the accounts that received precedence, being from people considered reliable. This list also highlights Thoresby’s wider social and intellectual networks. Thoresby might be a fellow of the Royal Society and have access to Sloane’s attention, but his own information gathering occurred primarily within his own social group, the middling ranks of clergymen and tradesmen.

The accounts also tell us what was going in Hull at five in the afternoon when the earthquake happened. Mr Banks was walking through the lively town centre, on his way to visit a sick person. Mrs Banks kept the china in her closet, which is where she was, and many of the family members were at home. The Banks family were also obviously comfortable in their domestic arrangements, owning as they did both pewter and china. Mr Peers, Mr Travers, and twenty tradesmen were busy writing at their desks. A neighbouring woman kept a large dog, which was clearly known for causing similar domestic havoc. The nearby ale house, run by a woman, was thriving, and at least one member of her family lived above. Thoresby’s relative the minister was visiting a gentleman and his sister was “sadly frighted” while alone in her room. The drama of the earthquake contrasts sharply with the homeliness of regular activities.

A short scientific report, perhaps. But one that offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of Thoresby and his friends – encapsulating their religious beliefs, information networks, social status, family relationships, and cozy domesticity.

A Curious Case of a Petrified Leg

The Sloane Correspondence contains several examples of curious medical cases, many of which were intended for publication in the Philosophical Transactions (which Sloane as secretary of the Royal Society edited for many years). One such case is that of Mrs Stevens of Maidenhead, aged 62. Surgeon Ralph Calep recounted her case in a letter to anatomist William Cowper, who in turn forwarded it to Sloane for publication.

Mrs Stevens became ill with a fever in November 1697. Within two weeks, she developed a swelling and numbness in her foot that spread up her leg. For a month, the attending physician treated her with remedies that theoretically should have helped according to early modern medical thought. The first treatment was a warm, moist compress of centaury, wormwood, and St. John’s Wort. According to the Pharmacopoia Londinensis (1702), these ingredients all had hot and dry properties and cleansed and treated wounds. Centaury might be used to treat scurvy (often seen as a skin problem) or gout, while wormwood was thought useful in resisting putrefaction. St. John’s Wort was supposed to dissolve bad blood and cure wounds. The second remedy, an oil of turpentine with galbanum, was to relieve pain, soften the skin, and reduce the tumour.

By the time surgeon Ralph Calep saw Mrs Stevens in early 1698, her foot and leg were in a bad way: brown and withered with black spots and no feeling in the leg. She was in great pain and occasionally delirium, begging Calep for help. But the only solution Calep could think of was to remove the leg, which Mrs Stevens refused. Calep thought this was best since he “did not expect any Success in the performing of it”, given her age and weakness, and left “supposing I shou’d never see her more”. He advised her friends to continue the compresses.

Amputation scene, “De gangraena et sphacelo”
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

A month later, Calep returned and was surprised to discover Mrs Stevens still alive, though with a hole in her leg that discharged black matter. Calep enlarged the opening to aid the flow. He also cut into a tumour on her knee, but was surprised to find nothing but air. He again left the patient, advising her to continue the compresses. When he returned another month later, he was not only surprised to find her still alive, but “to my admiration saw that, which thro’ the whole course of my Life I may never see again”: Nature had made a perfect separation of the mortified flesh, with the skin above looking healthy. At this point, he decided to remove the leg. Now, over ten years later, the woman was still alive! For Phil. Trans. readers, this would have indeed been a fascinating case—a peculiar physical problem, with a remedy that demonstrated the power of nature’s healing.

For the historian, the tale is intriguing for a couple other reasons. First: the surgeons’ claims to authority. Calep had one complaint after the amputation. He had hoped to take the leg for dissection, but “the Friends of the Woman deceived me”. They had promised to keep the leg for him, but then buried it in a secret location. Calep’s authority rested in his careful observation over time, as well as the verification of the story by Cowper. Cowper included a note to Sloane stating that he had also been to visit Mrs Stevens, though he had been unable to look at the thigh. Mrs Stevens was “decrepid” and the weather was too cold for her to show him. He did, however, feel the stump through her clothing and Cowper diagnosed her problem as one of petrification in the arteries. This problem, he had previously seen in “aged Persons” or cases of gangrene, and had published on it. Cowper’s authority rested in his reputation and previous scholarship.

William Cowper. Credit: National Library of Medicine and Wikimedia Commons.

But what is striking is the absence of real evidence: the amputated leg had disappeared and Cowper had not actually examined Mrs Stevens’ stump in detail. In the late seventeenth century, natural philosophers were establishing what counted as good evidence. Close observation and reputation were two of the crucial elements, but both surgeons recognised that their accounts would have been even more compelling if they had been able to examine the leg and stump. Each explained in detail why they had not done so.

The case is also interesting for what it tells us about the relationships among surgeon, patient, and patient’s friends. The “friends” (which would have included family) were important throughout, ensuring that Mrs Stevens received good care during her illness. Mrs Stevens also continued to have full control over her medical care, despite her occasional delirium. She refused the only treatment Calep could offer, amputation, until her leg started the process of separation itself. She was typical of many patients in this regard, who generally avoided surgery until it became the only option–unsurprising in an age without anaesthesia. Later, she also refused to show Cowper her stump in its entirety.

The patient’s control over the disposal of the body part appears to have been more contentious. Calep certainly wanted the leg for scientific purposes—at the very least for dissection, but possibly even intending to preserve it as a sample. He even seemed to expect that he should have it, suggesting that he’d been tricked out of having it when he called the friends deceitful. For Mrs Stevens, by contrast, there may have been some anxiety surrounding the leg’s dissection: what might happen to her body at the Resurrection? Was it shameful? By burying the leg, Mrs Stevens’ friends would have been acting on her wishes, or seeking to protect her.

A curious case, indeed, for contemporaries and historians alike!