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…

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