“Honourable Sir!” wrote Thomas Knight to Sloane in February 1737 (British Library, Sloane MS 4034, ff. 34-5). He wished Sloane’s advice on an “uncommon Case”—the discovery of hairs discharged by a man who suffered from a burning pain during urinating. Knight thoughtfully enclosed the matter in a pill box for Sloane’s examination.
The patient must have been in great pain as all the adjacent parts, internal and external, were swollen and irritated. He had tried bleeding, clysters, emulsions, and opiates, all to no avail; he was only relieved when he finally passed the “hairy Substance with the gritty Matter that adheres to it”. Importantly, the patient had “kept a strict Regimen” for many years because of gout and “incontinency of urine”. As part of his regimen, he regularly drank cow’s milk.
Knight theorized that the fine hairs had come from the skin of some animal that had gotten into the patient’s body and then circulated through the body until reaching the renal glands. “It is more possible”, he thought, “that they were extraneous, than that they were generated in the Urinary Passages”. He recognised that the veins in the body were indeed very small, but damp hairs “become very flexible, pliable and susceptible of being contorted and of assuming any Figure”. Perhaps “some of the downy-hair about the [cow’s] Udder might got along with the Milk”.
The oddity of the story is itself intriguing, but so too is the afterlife of the letter and sample. The details noted on the back of the letter by Sloane (or on his behalf) suggest the process of cataloguing in his collections.
Apr 27 1738
Ent’d in L.B.
Knight of Hair voided by Urine.
Ph. Tr. No. 460
VIII IX A letter from Mr T Knight to Sir Hans Sloane
pr. R. S. &c concerning Hair voided by Urine.
The letter and/or the sample were kept and entered into one of the collections in 1738. The letter was also passed on to the Royal Society and it was published in Philosophical Transactions no. 460.
So, what did the Royal Society make of Knight’s report? The Phil. Trans. editor in 1739, Cromwell Mortimer, remarked after the letter: “I doubt of these Substances being real Hairs; I imagine they are rather grumous Concretions, formed only in the Kidneys by being squeezed out of the excretory Ducts into the Pelvis”.
Painful enough, in any case, but at least no need to fear drinking milk!