Cholera Conundrum

Epidemiology, Famous Victorians

Max Joseph von Pettenkofer was a Bavarian chemist known for his research on practical hygiene and implementing many hygiene-related standards in German cities, including improving the state of drinking water, sewage disposal, and general cleanliness. 🚿 While all of this work positively contributed to public health, it was also a result of Pettenkofer’s alignment with the miasmatic theory rather than the germ theory of disease. 🌬️ And even though Pettenkofer did not deny the existence of bacteria, he thought they weren’t enough to cause sickness and had to be accompanied by bad living conditions, miasmatic air, and dirt in general. This belief made him at odds with Robert Koch, the discoverer of the bacterium responsible for cholera outbreaks and proponent of the germ theory of disease. 🔬 The two scientists did not see eye to eye with each other on how to deal with German cholera outbreaks in the 1880s, which only made things worse. 😷

Pettenkofer was so adamant that Koch was wrong that he decided to perform a perplexing experiment on himself in 1892 (when he was 74!). To prove that cholera could not develop without poor hygiene and subsoil rather than drinking water, he decided to drink a cholera bouillon laced with bacteria isolated from the stool of a person who had already died of that disease. 💀😱 To make sure his experiment was viable, he decided to do it in front of an audience and obtained the sample from Koch himself. He had also emptied his stomach beforehand and neutralized any leftover acid with sodium bicarbonate. 🤢

How this fantastic example of self-experimentation ended? After experiencing watery diarrhea for a week, Pettenkofer stated that he did NOT come down with cholera, and his symptoms were associated with something else. In reality, he contracted a mild case of cholera and was probably saved from death by the fact he already had had contact with the disease a few years earlier. 💀 When asked why he was willing to risk his own life, he stated “I would have looked Death quietly in the eye for mine would have been no foolish or cowardly suicide; I would have died in the service of science like a soldier on the field of honor.”

You can read more about this and other self-experiments in Who Goes First?

Halsted, Hampton, and Rubber Gloves

Famous Victorians, Great Inventions, Medicine, Surgery

In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:

“In the winter of 1889 and 1890, I cannot recall the month, the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets. On trial, these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. (…) After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.” 🧤

The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands, but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister. 🔬

The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. 👰💕 At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.

Halsted’s unusal life has been described in many books that could interest you, e.g., “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber.

Jack Black

Everyday Life, Famous Victorians, Home

🎶 This is not the greatest rat-catching in the world, no, this is just a tribute! 🐀

During the 19th century, London population almost tripled, making it the largest city in the world. The metropolis also became a true paradise for rats. 🐀 These clever rodents quickly took over not only the complex sewer system, but also the buildings above it. You could find them anywhere, from pipes and basements to attics and anywhere in between. Getting rid of that many rats was not an easy task and people would hire professional rat-catchers to help them solve the problem. ☠️

The most famous rat-catcher of the time was Jack Black, a man who boasted to work for the Queen herself and strolled the London streets in his flamboyant, colorful uniform. Black used a number of methods to catch and dispose of the rats, but he mostly relied on his trained ferrets and black tan terriers. The ferrets would pursue and “flush out” rats from the underground, and the dogs could track ferrets’ by smell and also kill rats on command. Rat-infested households were a bit problematic, as ferrets could get stuck in the nooks and crannies of the buildings. Because of that, Black had to catch the rats by hand or use more traditional rat traps. Being a prolific entrepreneur, he also experimented with training other animals to help him in vermin disposal, such as raccoons, badgers, and even a monkey! 🙊

More about Jack Black’s methods: https://academic.oup.com/jvc/article/19/4/520/4095121

Edgar Allan Poe’s Birthday!

Famous Victorians, Literature

Today marks the 212th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday (January 19, 1809)! 🎉 The beloved American writer is best known for his gothic poems and short stories full of mystery, lost love, and macabre. He is also considered to be the father of detective fiction and contributed to the popularization of science fiction. 🦇

While his convoluted and tragic love life is often discussed, Poe’s early life was plagued by other misfortunes as well. Orphaned by the age of two, he was taken in by John and Frances Allan. Edgar and Allan didn’t see eye to eye and often quarreled, especially over money. Feeling unsupported by the foster father, Edgar turned to gambling to pay for his education at the University of Virginia. This plan however backfired, leaving Poe with serious debts. After begging John for money, clothes, and basic necessities numerous times, he finally had to resign from the university and joined the army under an assumed name. He was only 18 at the time.

Madame X

art, Famous Victorians, Fashion

“Madame X” was an infamous portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, painted by John Singer Sargent. In the painting, Virginie, a Parisian socialite known for her beauty, is wearing a sleek black dress. She has perfectly styled hair, and the paleness of her skin beautifully contrasts with the dark background. It seemed that the piece would become a great success for both the artist and the model.

And yet, the portrait was met with a very controversial reception at the 1884 Paris Salon. The viewers commented on the revealing dress cut, the shoulder strap inappropriately falling down on the shoulder, the weird position of the model, and her morbid paleness. How could it be? After all, it was still the society that applauded the sickly look caused by romanticized tuberculosis. What is more, the dress design wasn’t more revealing than other popular evening gowns at the time. It seems that a large part of the scandal was … gossip.

The 1884 Salon was a particularly mundane exhibition with almost no notable paintings. Moreover, visitors had to go through many rooms to see “Madame X”, which could have altered their moods. Besides, the majority of the patrons belonged to the bourgeoisie and could have been more critical of the aristocratic Madame Gautreau flaunting her jeweled straps and high fashion. It was also enough for a few respected people to openly describe the piece of art as ‘immoral’ to create an atmosphere in which anyone who disagrees could be seen as ‘immoral’ as well. The newspapers quickly jumped on the bandwagon, criticizing the painting, Madame Gautreau, and Sargent. They even printed caricatures! As you can imagine, at that point, new Salon visitors were already expecting to see something scandalous, even before seeing the painting themselves!

The scandal was so blown up out of proportion that Virginie’s mother threatened Sargent with a duel, and Sargent himself moved to Britain (after repainting the unfortunate strap, as can be seen in the portrait today.). After the initial backlash, the lives of Gautreau and Sargent went back to normal. The first remained a fashionable Paris figure, and the latter became a highly sought-after artist.  

Check out this video by Karolina Żebrowska to find out more on the history of Madame X!

Princess Sisi

Cosmetics, Famous Victorians

Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837 – 1898), more commonly known as Sisi, was famous for her extraordinary beauty, lavish hair, and fashion sense. To live up to her own standards, she practiced elaborate beauty routines with the use of a variety of products. Some of these products contained surprisingly weird ingredients… 

This comic was inspired by a great Sawbones episode: Wrinkles.

H. P. Lovecraft’s Birthday

Famous Victorians, Literature

🐙 Today marks the 130th birth anniversary of H.P. Lovecraft (August 20, 1890), an American weird and horror fiction writer. He is best known for the creation of what we now call Cthulhu Mythos, a universe that has inspired many popular novels, games, and movies.

This occasion inspired me to prepare a small watercolor piece of a young Lovecraft haunted by the cosmic horror. 🐙

Victoria and Albert’s Cruise

Everyday Life, Famous Victorians

In the summer of 1858, Victoria and Albert took a leisurely cruise down the Thames, unprepared for the severity of the Great Stink. It is said that they lasted on board only a few minutes, despite bringing scented handkerchieves with them. 🙊🙊

If you missed my previous post on the Great Stink itself, check it out! 

Also, here’s an awesome video on the Great Stink

Freud and Cocaine

Famous Victorians, Medicine

Sigmund Freud, best known as the father of psychoanalysis, spent a large portion of his life promoting cocaine as a miracle cure for almost everything. Not only did he prescribe cocaine to his patients, but also used it himself on a regular basis. Some scholars believe this has largely influenced his theories on the human psyche and treatments which are considered pseudoscientific today.