Author: Lisa Smith

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.

“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.


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

Letters Sealed With a Kiss in the Republic of Letters

Today is International Kissing Day. In June, on National Kissing Day (UK), I spread some misery instead of joy with a sad tale of a kiss. But kisses weren’t always so terrible. A quick search of the database reveals that men in the Republic of Letters were no strangers to sealing their letters with a kiss. Well… at least referring to kisses in their letters! Such letters highlight that eighteenth-century kissing was as much about gratitude and submission as friendship for then men of the Royal Society.

A nobleman kissing a lady's hand, Pietro Longhi (1746). Historical images of hand-kissing between men are difficult to find!   Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, photograph taken by user Ammonius.

Historical images of hand-kissing between men are difficult to find! This picture is a nobleman kissing a lady’s hand by Pietro Longhi, 1746. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Ammonius.

Richard Waller in 1696 wrote to apologise that he was proving a poor Royal Society secretary because he could so rarely come into London for the meetings. He did, nonetheless, promise that when he next saw Sloane, he “will not fail to kiss [Sloane’s] hand”. The letter expresses gratitude to Sloane who has been taking on the bulk of the secretarial work. In some ways, this seems equivalent to the modern “I could just kiss you”. But hand-kissing had a more significant meaning  in early modern Europe than simple affection and gratitude: to kiss someone’s hand was a form of submission. Waller’s gratitude was great indeed!

The reference to kissing in the letter of George Bennis suggests that Sloane was becoming an important patron relatively early in his career. Bennis—who otherwise left little mark on the Republic of Letters or Royal Society—wrote in 1698 that he had waited on Sloane several times, but had not been able to speak with him. As Bennis now needed to return to Ireland, he instead left Sloane some botanical samples along with the letter. In particular, Bennis noted his regret at being unable to kiss Sloane’s hand. Bennis’ kiss was one of deference to a potential patron, and another Irish man who had managed to make it big in Britain.

But sometimes a kiss is a mark of true friendship. A letter from well-known botanist William Sherard in 1699 referred to kissing within the context of friendship. The two men had several close mutual acquaintances (John Ray and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, for example) and their correspondence over time shows a mutual interest in each other’s projects and lives. In this letter, he mentioned his excitement at returning home from Paris, along with various details about book buying and auctions. In addition to promising Sloane that he would make some purchases for him, Sherard exlaimed that he couldn’t wait to kiss Sloane’s hand very soon.

So far I have only found a handful of references to kisses in the Sloane correspondence, either in the database or in the manuscripts. This might be a function of data selection; a seemingly casual reference to kissing might easily be overlooked as a pro forma statement that didn’t need to be noted. That said, an early eighteenth-century guide to letter-writing, The Secretary’s Guide (1705), does not provide any samples between men that mention hand-kissing.The infrequency of kissing references suggests that any ones mentioned in Sloane’s letters are meaningful.

One thing is clear: we need to pay attention to these tiny details. A kiss was never just a kiss in the Republic of Letters .

A Trip to the Canary Islands, 1699-style

Sunset, 22 June 2013: Costa Adeje, Tenerife. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

Sunset, 22 June 2013: Costa Adeje, Tenerife. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

Research is never really far from my mind, even when strolling along the seaside promenade or sipping mojitos as I did last week in Tenerife.

An idle thought crossed my mind as I basked in the sun, alongside the funky Tenerifan lizards and bright-red British tourists: are there any letters about the Canary Islands in the Sloane Correspondence?

Given the importance of the Canaries as an early modern stopping point for ships heading to Africa, or indeed the New World, I would have guessed that there would be several. At present, however, there are only two letters on Sloane’s correspondence that mention the Canary Islands. Both letters were written by the botanist and entomologist William Vernon. In 1699, Vernon was granted £20 by the Royal Society to visit the Canary Islands. He had recently returned from a successful visit to Maryland, where he had collected several specimens. With an eagerness to travel and an eye for collecting, Vernon would have been a good choice to make the trip.


The old port town of Garachico, Tenerife. In 1706, the port closed because of a lava flow from a volcanic eruption. Copyright: Lisa Smith, 2013.

But he missed the boat.

In February 1699, Vernon was waiting to hear of any ship bound for the Canary Islands. With the spring being later there, he hoped that he still might acquire spring plants—and, fortunately, the autumn would last until mid-November, allowing ample opportunity to collect summer and autumn specimens, too. In the meantime, Vernon remained busy trying to find more specimens of sea plants around Margate. This was tricky, since this time of year was the “barrenest” for sea plants.

By May, it was clear that Vernon would not be going to the Canaries after all. He reported that he had been unable to find a ship bound for the Canaries since he’d seen Sloane and thought it was now too late to make the funded voyage. Instead, he would travel around the countryside. He promised Sloane at least four or five curiosities that would be of interest to the Royal Society.

The English countryside: not really the same as the Canaries! But interesting all the same. And, as all funding bodies (and academics) know, good research plans often change along the way. Vernon never did take a trip to the Canaries, although he remained in regular contact with both Sloane and the Royal Society.

What I’m intrigued by, though, is why Vernon had such trouble finding a ship bound for the Canaries. Readers: any ideas?

The Sad Kiss of 1722

Today is National Kissing Day in the U.K.  I’m not normally in favour of faux holidays, but there’s nothing wrong with a day that “spreads a bit of joy” (as one of the organisers puts it). It also inspired me to wonder: did any of the people who wrote to Dr. Sloane about medical problems ever mention kissing? One thing I learned from my investigation: any kisses in medical letters are unlikely to spread joy…  I want to consider the saddest kiss of all that appears in Sloane’s correspondence: one between two of Lord Lymington’s children in 1722.

The dance of death: the family and children. Two children kissing on the right. Thomas Rowlandson, 1816. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The dance of death: the family and children. Two children kissing on the right. Thomas Rowlandson, 1816. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Dr. John Hughes wrote to Hans Sloane for advice about Borlace Wallop, aged two. The young lad suffered from a “tettering humour” in his face and stomach, along with coughing and fits. When you read “tetter”, imagine a skin disease with clusters of pustules in clusters that would harden and become scabby. It must have been painful: or, as Dr. Hughes described it, “very sharp and blistering”. Borlace remained, nonetheless, a lusty lad with a good appetite.

The family believed that Borlace had become ill after kissing his baby sister, Mary, who had also had similar symptoms. The real worry, though, was the prospect of death. Wee Mary had just died from the ailment, aged only eight months. Lord Lymington had a high opinion of Sloane and wanted to know how they could keep his son from dying, too.

Sloane prescribed an uncomfortable treatment of bleeding and purging. It might seem torturous to us to inflict further pain on the child, but the goal of the treatment was to remove the foul humour causing the problem. There wasn’t really much else that could be done apart from palliative care. The good news is that Borlace recovered.[1]

The letter itself is short, but it evokes a series of poignant images: the sweet affection of two infants; the suffering of small children; the fear and desperation of a loving family. A sad kiss, indeed.

[1] Borlace was still destined to die young, at the age of twenty-one from a fever caught after the attack on Fort San Lazaro.

Making Sense of Hans Sloane’s Collections

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British nation purchased his collection and established the British Museum. Over the next two centuries, the collection was dispersed as new institutions were formed. The Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, acquired Sloane’s plant and animal collections. The British Library, established in 1973, laid claim to the manuscripts and printed books. If this sounds orderly, it wasn’t!

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Just to give a hint of the complexity, it’s worth noting that bits of Sloane’s correspondence appear on the backs of natural history drawings that are held in the British Museum and some of his reading notes appear in printed catalogues at the Natural History Museum.

Considering the scope of Sloane’s collections, it is surprising that relatively little scholarly work has been done on them. But the three institutions are trying to bring Sloane’s collections back together virtually in a fascinating project, Reconstructing Sloane. The first step was The Sloane Printed Books Project, a catalogue that allows researchers to get a sense of what Sloane’s original library looked like and how it changed over time. The second step is a grant that has allowed the institutions to partner with Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London to fund three collaborative doctoral awards. Alice Marples, Felicity Roberts and Victoria Pickering have all taken on the challenge of reconstructing parts of Sloane’s vast collections. To my delight, they will be occasionally sharing the fruits of their research on The Sloane Letters Blog.

Alice (KCL ), who has a background in Enlightenment coffee-houses, is researching Sloane’s correspondence and manuscripts at the British Library. In particular, she is looking at Sloane’s network of colleagues, commercial traders and contributors to understand Sloane’s public persona. Through his correspondence, he was able to construct a space for material exchange, scientific endeavour and social interaction.

Felicity (KCL) has degrees in English and eighteenth-century studies. She is looking at Sloane’s natural history drawings, primarily held at the British Museum, to discover how Sloane interpreted and visualized the natural world. Her study is situated within London’s wider philosophical and literary culture, which disucssed concepts of nature, natural order, truth, beauty and authenticity.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Victoria (QMUL) previously studied the early modern transatlantic slave trade. Her project, “Putting Nature in a Box” examines Sloane’s collection of 12000 small boxes of vegetable substances, which included seeds, bark and curios. Using Sloane’s hand-written, three volume catalogue, she is tracing who sent what items, the origins of the substances, and Sloane’s intended uses for the objects.

What is, perhaps, most exciting about these projects is that they are not undertaken in isolation. The students and their supervisors at all six institutions (and occasionally, me!) have regular seminars. Along the way, seminars have included discussions about readings, visits to the collections or guest speakers. The interdisciplinary collaboration is providing us with an appreciation of the sheer size of Sloane’s collections and how each part fits together.  The students’ individual projects are enhanced by a wider understanding of curation, cataloguing and collecting: how Sloane’s collection has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time. With a collection so large and dispersed, collaboration is also the only way scholars will ever make sense of Sloane’s complete collections.

There are other advantages, too. “Working collaboratively”, writes Victoria, “provides a wonderful support network” and is “an interesting and exciting opportunity”—and besides, there is “nothing quite like being able to talk to another PhD student about your work and for them to know exactly what you’re talking about.” It is also, perhaps, the best way of studying a man who was a super-mediator in his own life, and one who valued the sharing of knowledge. As Alice puts it, this “collective engagement with knowledge production and diffusion is something that Sloane himself would no doubt appreciate!” 

No doubt.

Doctor Sloane and His Patients in Eighteenth-Century England

In April, I received the good news that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada had decided to fund my project “Reconstructing the Lives of Doctor Sloane and His Patients in Eighteenth-Century England” for three years.This may have resulted in an impromptu dance around the room, but fortunately the walls won’t talk…

The dance of death. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The dance of death. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This is in many ways a project born of snoopiness. I have always loved to read about the mucky details of daily life, and the letters written to Sloane offer much by way of gore, suffering and family quarrels. But one thing has always frustrated me in my research: the size of Sloane’s correspondence (upwards of forty volumes, depending on what is counted). So many letters, so many stories, so often hard to find!

The goal of this phase of the project is to complete the database, Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online, and to produce a series of microhistories about Sloane and his patients. While the collection remains indexed only by author (as it largely is still), it is difficult to navigate. The purpose of my database is to make it possible to search Sloane’s correspondence for details, such as people mentioned, social occasions, or specific illnesses. The database also makes it easier to find all references to a patient, whether made by a medical practitioner, friend or parent. This is when, to my way of thinking, things start to get really interesting.

The family records of the Newdigates, for example, show that Sloane treated several members of the family. Elizabeth Newdigate’s letters to Sloane reveal a troubled young woman, beset by family strife that included two siblings with insanity, a lawsuit by the eldest son, and the daughters’ mysterious suit before Parliament (which was dropped) for their father’s “unnatural acts”. Reading the family references in Sloane’s letters alongside the Newdigate papers will be useful in uncovering the family’s dysfunction and the wider context of Elizabeth Newdigate’s illness letters. Gender, age and status all played key roles in the disputes. By reading cases like these alongside available family archives, I can use the medical letters as a point of entry into understanding the moments of illness within the wider context of patients’ and families’ lives.

The database can also be used to trace relationships. Consider, for example, Sloane’s relationship with the Duchess of Albemarle.  Although Sloane went to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle, he remained the Duchess’ household physician when he returned to London and even after the Duchess remarried the Duke of Montagu. The Pierreponts were the Duchess’ birth family, while the Cadogans were related to the Duke of Montagu: both families were regular patients of Sloane’s. In 1719, Sloane’s daughter even married into the Cadogan family. The letters from this group of related families provide insight into the workings of patronage, kinship, and Sloane’s career, as much as their collective health.

Sloane himself is a fascinating subject of study. There are only a handful of letters about Sloane’s family and business in the correspondence, but there are also many small bits of scattered information: what he prescribed, others’ attitudes toward him, references to his opinions, details about property management, clues to his family and social life…  His family life, too, was important for his career. He married Elizabeth Rose (née Langley), who was from a well-to-do London family and a widow of a wealthy Jamaican landowner; her wealth aided his ability to maintain the appearance of a gentleman (important in attracting wealthy clients) and to collect objects from around the world (which reinforced the image of him as a man of science). At the height of his career, Sloane was President of the Royal College of Physicians, President of the Royal Society and a royal physician—a man very much at the centre of the medical and scientific community, with opportunity to influence the health of the nation.

Case histories such as these will allow me to examine the way in which social and political networks, state-building and power structures were reinforced in the everday life of the early modern household.

And, of course, maximise my snoopiness.

Medical Advice by Post in the Eighteenth Century

The internet age has brought with it the phenomenon of patients seeking medical consultations online. We like to think of this as a new way of empowering patients, but—technology aside—this scenario would have seemed familiar to eighteenth-century sufferers. One of the reasons for Sir Hans Sloane’s voluminous correspondence (forty-one volumes at the British Library) is that wealthy patients, their friends and families, and their medical practitioners regularly consulted with him on medical matters by post. This method of medical treatment made sense in the eighteenth century, with its growing postal networks and continued focus on patients’ accounts of illness.

In her post on “Contracts and Early Modern Scholarly Networks”, Ann-Marie Hansen described the etiquette of scholarly correspondence. More broadly, there were popular manuals to provide guidance on letter-writing. In The Universal Letter-Writer (1708), for example, Rev. Thomas Cooke provided formulaic letters to discuss sickness and death (alongside topics such as “a young man inadvertently surprised with an immediate demand for payment”). There was another crucial change. Mail could of course be sent across the country and internationally in early modern Europe, but it was becoming increasingly efficient and inexpensive. From 1680, for example, the Penny Post allowed people within ten miles of London to send and to receive post within a day. It was possible to seek medical advice from the most famous physicians of the day without ever leaving home—at least for the well-to-do and literate. Medical advice by post wasn’t cheap: Sloane charged one guinea per letter.[1]

Most of the medical letters to Sloane discussed long-term or chronic ailments. Letter-writing, even at its fastest, would take at least two days, making it unsuitable for emergency or short-term problems. Mrs. J. Eyre, for example, had been suffering for over fourteen weeks by the time she wrote to Sloane. There was, however, usually some sort of incident that triggered the letter. Henry Ireton became worried in 1709 when he started to produce bloody urine and to vomit after riding a horse the previous week, but he had already been a long-term sufferer (and self-treater) of urinary complaints. The process of composing a narrative might, in itself, have been therapeutic for patients. In this way, the patient could impose order and meaning on an illness that had disrupted normal life. Such patients were also likely to be physically unable to make the trip to London to see Sloane, but could still receive the benefit of his expertise.

Monaural stethoscope, early 19th century, designed by Laennec. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The first stethoscopes were not invented until the early 19th century. Monaural stethoscope, designed by Laennec. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of the reasons that consultation letters made so much sense is that medical practice relied, by and large, on the patient’s narrative. Whereas surgeons treated the exterior of the body, physicians treated the interior. But, of course, they had no way to examine the insides of living bodies. There might be some physical examination, but this tended to focus on checking the eyes, ears, skin and pulse or looking at bodily excretions. With so much emphasis on the patient’s account, an actual physical presence was less important. Ideally, the patient would recount everything, saving time and money, since the doctor was unable to ask further questions immediately. Physicians could observe their patients during ordinary consultations, but in a letter, the patient’s story really was everything.

A patient’s narrative provided important clues to the patient’s humoral temperament and previous medical history. Mrs J. Eyre in 1708 noted that she did not trust local physicians to understand her choleric temperament; she did, nonetheless, report to Sloane their diagnosis of hysteria. Most importantly, though, only a patient could describe any internal symptoms to the physician. In 1725, Jane Hopson (aged over fifty) wrote to Sloane about her leg pain, a cold humour that she felt “trickling down like water”, which “the least wind pierces”. Although Elaine Scarry (and a number of other pain scholars) has claimed that pain isolates sufferers through its inability to be verbalised, eighteenth-century sufferers eloquently described their illnesses.[2] Clear narratives might have helped to elicit understanding from friends, family and physicians—and to persuade physicians that the descriptions were reliable. Only patients could provide the crucial details about internal symptoms that could help the physician in diagnosis and treatment.

Whatever rhetorical strategies might be used when composing a medical consultation letter, the correspondence had a distinctly functional purpose: to obtain the most useful treatment from a physician. The letters reflected the reliance of physicians on their patients’ stories and provided sufferers with a way of making sense of their illnesses. When it comes to electronic consultations, modern medicine has much to lose if this is primarily a cost- and time-saving measure, but much to gain if it is a real attempt to focus more on sufferers’ experiences.

[1] According to the National Archives currency converter, was about £90 in 2005 terms, or eleven days’ labour from a craft builder in 1720.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

For a very short bibliography on medical consultation letters, see here.


The Moon and Epilepsy in the Eighteenth Century

A long-standing myth about epilepsy is that it is tied to the lunar cycle, worsening during the full moon. Just Google it to see what comes up in the search… But the boundary between what we see as myth and what eighteenth-century people saw as medicine is blurry, as a quick search of the Sloane Correspondence database for epilepsy shows.

A man suffering from mental illness or epilepsy is held up in front of an altar on which is a reliquary with the face of Christ, several crippled men are also at the altar in the hope of a miracle cure. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In February 1739, physician Christopher Packe consulted with Sir Hans Sloane about Mr Roberts’ recent epileptic fit (BL Sl. MS 4076, f. 220). Before describing the fit, Packe specified that it occurred on the morning of the full moon. Before the fit, the patient appeared wild and suffered from a numb leg and a swollen nose. In the hopes of preventing a seizure, Packe prescribed a vomit. Mr Roberts, moreover, had been diligent in following Sloane’s orders: a restricted diet and various medicines. Everything was being done that could be done, to no avail, and Packe was “apprehensive” of the next full moon.

An undated, unsigned letter came from a gentleman aged 28, who had been “seized with epilepsy two months ago” after having no fits between the ages of 16 to 20 (BL Sl. MS 4078, f. 329). Epilepsy ran in his family, he reported, with his mother being “subject to it or at least violent hysterick disorders from girlhood” and his father having seizures for several years before death. The patient wondered if the trigger had been his change from winter clothes to spring clothes, as well as drinking more than usual for several weeks prior to the recurrence. The timing of his changed lifestyle could not have been worse, since “about three days before the full moon immediately preceeding the Vernal equinox he fell into that fitt”.

The focus of these letters on full moons and clothing changes may seem superstitious to us today—and the parallel between epilepsy and hysteria perplexing—but reflected the wider medical understanding of the time. Botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (with whom Sloane studied in France) and physician Thomas Sydenham (with whom Sloane worked in England) considered hysteria and epilepsy to be related: convulsive disorders that affected the brain.[1] According to contemporary treatises, other related ailments included vertigo, palsy, melancholy, fainting, and rabies.[2]

Well-known physicians Thomas Willis (1621-1675), Richard Mead (1673-1754) and John Andree (1699-1785) discussed some of the old stories about epilepsy. Willis and Andree noted that epileptic fits were so shocking to observers that they had, in previous times, been attributed to demons, gods or witchcraft.[3] Willis’s remedies may appear just as magical to modern eyes, but they would have been common in early modern medicine. There was also a key difference: he treated epilepsy as natural rather than supernatural. Willis began his treatments with a careful regime of vomits, purges, and blood-letting to prepare the body for preventative remedies. These included concoctions of male peony, mistletoe, rue, castor, elk claws, human skull, frog liver, wolf liver, amber, coral (and so much more), which would help in tightening the pores of the brain. Some of the medicines were also to be worn on the body rather than ingested, perhaps a silk bag (elk hoof, mistletoe and peony roots) at the waist or an elder stalk amulet at the neck.[4]

By the time Andree was writing, some of Willis’ seemingly magical recommendations had been lost, although most of the remedies remained the same. Andree, however, looked beyond the brain for the source of the problem. He emphasised that it was important to identify the underlying cause of the epilepsy: humoral obstruction, plethora of blood, head injury, worms or fever.[5]

The moon, viewed in full sunlight. Stipple engraving, 1805. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The moon continued to be important in Mead’s and Andree’s understanding of epilepsy. Mead argued that the human body was intimately affected by the influence of the sun and moon, with epilepsy and hysteria being particularly subject to lunar periods. The most critical of these were the new or full moons around the vernal and autumnal equinox, moments of important change. Mead was particularly interested in periodicity within the human body, which included periodical hemorrhages (including menstruation). Using the same rationale for explaining men’s periodical hemorrhages, Mead seemed to suggest that weak or plethoric (too much blood) bodies were particularly subject to the lunar cycle.[6]

Andree took the effects of the moon on epilepsy as a given, recommending that epileptic patients be given vomits around that time. He focused on the necessity of regulating the body through good management to prevent weakness and plethora. Drunkenness and gluttony, erratic emotions or sudden frights, overuse of opiates, excessive sexual intercourse could all trigger epilepsy. Puberty, with its rapid changes to the body, was a dangerous time when epilepsy might go away altogether, or worsen. Epilepsy that did not go away was thought to result in gradual degeneration—stupidity, melancholy, palsy, cachexia (weakness)—that would be difficult to treat.[7]

No wonder Sloane’s patients were so worried! For Dr Packe, Mr Roberts’ condition would have appeared to be deteriorating, in spite of the best efforts of doctor and patient. And the unnamed gentleman, given his family’s medical history, must have blamed himself for making potentially disastrous choices at one of the worst times of year. Timing was everything when it came to epilepsy. In Sloane’s lifetime, many old ideas about epilepsy had been relegated into the realm of myth, but a connection between the full moon and epilepsy remained as firm as ever.

 [1] Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, Materia medica; or, a description of simple medicines generally used in physick (1716), pp. 84, 265; Thomas Sydenham, Dr. Sydenham’s compleat method of curing almost all diseases, and description of their symptoms (1724), p. 150.

[2] See, for examples, Richard Mead, Of the power and influence of the sun and moon on humane bodies (1712); John Andree, Cases of the epilepsy, Hysteric Fits, and St. Vitus Dance, & the process of cure (1746); Thomas Willis, An essay of the pathology of the brain and nervous stock in which convulsive diseases are treated of, 2nd edition (1684).

[3] Willis, p. 11; Andree, p. 7.

[4] Willis, pp. 18-20.

[5] Andree, pp. 3, 10-12.

[6] Mead, pp. 31-42.

[7] Andree, pp. 10-12, 25.

An Unusual Case of Menstruation in Eighteenth-Century England

“Mrs Wilson’s Case”, undated and unsigned, appears in the final volume of Hans Sloane’s Medical Correspondence and Cases (Sloane MS 4078, f. 372). Mrs Wilson’s troubles began the previous spring. She noticed in May that her tongue was occasionally sore when she ate, which she assumed must have been the result of a loose tooth cutting it. An obvious conclusion, with a seemingly obvious treatment: having the tooth pulled. But she waited until July before taking “a Friends Advice” to do just that.

Watercolour drawing of a Hunterian chancre situated on the dorsum of the tongue, 1892. The patient was a young woman, aged 22. Credit: St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum, Wellcome Images.

Mrs Wilson’s tongue continued to worsen and she called in “an old experienced surgeon”, who prescribed medicinal gargles of all kinds. By August, it was clear that the gargles were not helping. Mrs. Wilson had a noticeable ulcer on her tongue. This time, the surgeon prescribed other remedies to treat internal blockages, possibly caused by a scorbutic or venereal problem. He gave her mild mercurial pills and purges.[1] He salivated her.[2] He applied a seton to the back of her neck.[3] He gave her a linctus.[4]

Nowadays, we might think these sorts of remedies were overkill in treating a mere mouth ulcer, when surely a topical treatment like Bonjela would do the trick! But the use of the term “ulcer” to describe Mrs Wilson’s problem is misleading for modern readers; in early modern usage, “ulcer” referred specifically to an open sore that seeped morbid matter. This was a much more serious problem. She had other symptoms, too, such as a pinching in her throat and pain in her ear and head. The swelling of her tongue kept increasing.

During treatment, the sore had been “ebbing and flowing”, which initially gave some hopes of a cure, but when a fungus developed over it, the surgeon “confessed it to be a discouraging case”. He consulted a second surgeon, who seemed to have more success. The fungus cleared up within a week, allowing the second surgeon to focus once more on the ulcer—at least until the fungus reappeared within a fortnight. This was treated quickly, but the fungus again returned again two weeks later, and started to spread up the tongue. This was becoming cyclical. Another fortnight passed, at which point both surgeons decided to consult Sloane.

One section of the case, marked “N.B.” to indicate its importance, explained that the salivation had “brought her Courses [menstruation] uopn her before the Time, but she has never had them since.” Indeed, the situation took an odd turn: “Some time after the salivation the Tongue voided Blood wch the old surgeon acknowledged might be the Courses flowing to the Part & bled her in the Foot.” Mrs Wilson had since been bled twice, but “the Blood continues to flow thither periodically”.

Mrs Wilson, it appeared, was menstruating through her tongue. This process, known as vicarious menstruation, has been neatly described in a blog post by Helen King: nature seeking an alternative path out of a woman’s body when her menstrual flow was suppressed. The dominant explanation for menstruation was that the body needed to purge itself of a plethora of blood, which men ordinarily excreted through sweat; plethora would continue to build up in a person’s body, leading to a variety of health problems if it was not released. Common forms of vicarious menstruation included nosebleeds, coughing up blood, or bleeding haemorrhoids.[5] These alternative flows might have been ‘natural’, but they certainly weren’t desirable; the new pathways had been created by the acidity of the stagnant, corrupted mass of blood.

So what did the eminent physician Sloane think? His response is cryptically indicated by the prescription that he scrawled on the top of the page in two lines of Latin abbreviations. He agreed with some of the first surgeon’s treatments, recommending first that Mrs Wilson be bled from the foot. This was a common method of drawing down a woman’s menstruation and re-establishing its correct path. He also aimed to treat the corrupted blood, which was causing the ulcer, by means of a cathartic electuary (a strong purge). Sloane, however, may have been a bit sceptical about the mercurial treatments, as suggested by his prescription for gold powder—a treatment to counteract mercury poisoning.

The tongue itself was an unusual location for vicarious menstruation, but certainly not impossible: any open sore offered a potential exit for retained blood. Helen King wondered in her blog post how patients suffering from vicarious menstruation might have reacted. Mrs Wilson’s case describes her physical pains, as well as the discouragement of the first surgeon, which hints at her experience. But perhaps the simple list of symptoms is evocative enough: swollen tongue, ulcer, fungal growth and periodically bleeding tongue. Enough said. It puts my teeth on edge.

[1] Mercury was used to treat venereal and scorbutic problems, which were thought to result from a hot, poisonous humour.

[2] A treatment that aimed to drain bad humours of the body through a continuous flow of saliva.

[3] A small surgical hole in the skin, kept open to allow drainage of bad humours.

[4] A cough medicine, presumably in this case an expectorant one to expel the phlegm in the lungs.

[5] On menstruating men, see my Wonders and Marvels post. On a periodically bleeding leg ulcer, see Sara Read’s post.