19th-century ‘Ambition Pills’ were supplements for men that promised to get rid of a variety of problems: impotence, sleeplessness, enlarged veins, and nervous debility. Unsurprisingly, a few decades after the introduction of those pills, a study found that their ingredients were questionable. In 1918, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that each pill contained “a little over one-thirtieth of a grain of strychnin” and that it was “possible for any one to purchase enough strychnin in a single box of Wendell’s Ambition Pills to kill an adult.”
I know you’ve all been waiting for the great comeback of our favorite poison – arsenic.
In 1874, a surprising medical case investigated by doctor Wintreberg was described in “Revue de Thérapeutique Médico-Chirurgicale.” One of Wintreberg’s patients was suffering from recurring and painful anal ulcers, and there was no indication as to what could have caused them. Lotions, enemas, special diet – nothing helped for long. After some time it turned out that a few other members of the family started experiencing the same symptoms, which gave Wintreberg a clue as to what was going on. After a brief “investigation” it turned out the culprit was … green poster paper the family used in their latrines. Tests confirmed that the poster paper contained copper arsenite! Fortunately, it was enough for the family to throw the paper away to ease their symptoms.
You can find his and other bizarre stories about arsenic in “Kolor śmierci, odcień grobu czyli 50 odcieni morderczej zieleni” by a friend of mine, Wiktoria Król. Unfortunately, the book is only available in Polish right now, but who knows what the future holds!
Have you ever unknowingly made candles out of a dead body? This might seem impossible, but it’s exactly what physician Augustus Bozzi Granville did. In 1821, in the midst of Victorian Egyptomania, he had a chance to unwrap, dissect, and thoroughly examine an ancient mummy. During the process, he discovered a wax-like substance surrounding the mummy, which he thought to be a mix of beeswax and bitumen used by Egyptian embalmers. In reality, he came across adipocere (commonly known as corpse wax), a product of saponification of fatty tissues.
In his autobiography, Granville sums up his discovery:
“I claim in this laborious investigation to have demonstrated the fact of wax having been the ingredient which was successfully employed, not only to preserve the body from putrefaction, but also to keep the membranes as well as ligaments in their supple condition, so that when the wax was discharged from them by the process of boiling in water, the soft parts came out with their natural structure, and in less than twenty-four hours underwent decomposition and putrefaction.”
He was so sure of his discovery, that he used the very same ancient “wax” to prepare a set of small candles to beautifully illuminate his lecture on the mummy at the Royal Institution.
To further support his claims regarding the mummification method, Granville experimented with preserving body parts of stillborn children with the use of wax “according to the Egyptian method”. All of his specimens can still be seen at the British Museum.
The majority of Victorians had little knowledge on how diseases spread and what to do to treat them. Even the most educated ones were divided between the miasmatic theory and the germ theory of disease for decades; and physicians’ advice could be wildly contradictory.
Add to that hundreds of ‘cure-all’ drugs, which often were more harmful than the diseases themselves, and we get a picture of utter chaos and misinformation. No wonder many Victorians decided to trust more traditional remedies to which they were used, even if it meant using bizarre ingredients. One of the favorite traditional remedies were liquids and ointments with… earthworms. These products were used for bruises and were based on a recipe that had been around from medieval times! The worms were first boiled in oil and then broken up in a mortar and mixed with wine and other ingredients. Then the mixture was boiled and used in a liquid form on the bruises.
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?
A baffling cough medicine recipe from Constance Moore’s “Hints on Health from the Victorians.” It goes without saying that you should NOT try it!
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.
Usually Veinity Fair is all about the Victorians, but I just couldn’t resist sharing with you some more medieval advice…
You can find more delightful and morbid trivia in this surprisingly funny book by Jennifer Wright: Get Well Soon
While working in Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s, Ignaz Semmelweis noticed a curious thing – the mortality rate of new mothers was a lot higher in wards supervised by doctors 👨⚕️compared to those supervised by midwives 👩⚕️. After some investigating, he found the source of the problem – only doctors had access to both maternity wards and autopsy tables. Semmelweis quickly developed a theory of what he called “cadaverous particles” 🧟♀️🧟♀️ and introduced rigorous handwashing 🧼 in his clinics. Unfortunately, even though his method worked spectacularly well, he was ridiculed by most of the medical professionals until his death in a lunatic asylum. 💀
John Snow was an English physician, 👨⚕️ best known for finding the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho,1854. By putting all known cholera cases on a map, he found the source of all troubles – a contaminated water pump. 💦 Why was it such a big deal? This discovery not only led to shutting down the pump, but also worked in favor of the budding germ theory of disease. 🦠🦠🦠 Even though Snow himself didn’t know that at the time, he contributed to the birth of epidemiology. 🔬
The third episode of the newest Victoria season talks about the Snow’s cholera investigation, so check it out! (the series doesn’t always stick well to the facts, though, you’ve been warned) 😀