War of the Currents

Famous Victorians, Great Inventions, Physics

In the early 1880s, an electric light revolution started to take over big American cities. Two electric power transmission systems were introduced: street lamps utilizing high-voltage alternating current (AC) and indoor lighting using low-voltage direct current (DC). The latter was heavily promoted by Thomas Edison, especially when his company was suddenly threatened by new competition: George Westinghouse and his transformers and wire system enabling AC to be used for indoor lighting. The introduction of this new system started the so-called war of the currents, in which the Edison Electric Light Company tried to besmirch Westinghouse’s name and solutions by sparking fear in the public. And while at the time it was true the AC system could be extremely dangerous, the actions taken by some of the people involved were questionable to say the least and involved lying to the press, blackmail, and even killing animals.

This comic was inspired by Andrzej who won the possibility to become one of the characters in a local charity event! 💜 If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on Veinity Fair Patreon.

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!

“A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls”

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

The San Francisco Call, December 27, I898
“A Christmas Tree with Lamps of Skulls”

The Vision That Appeared to a Demonstrator of Anatomy at Midnight.

It was 12 o’clock last Saturday night when Dr. W. O. Wllcox climbed the stairs of 21 Powell street to go to his room. It was just the time when graveyards yawn and give forth their dead; but the doctor had no reason to suppose the spirits of the air would haunt him in the privacy of his own chamber, so he opened the door without hesitation and stepped inside.

There was no need of striking alight. The room was illuminated by a score of prim and ghastly lamps, that clung to the green bangles of a Christmas tree standing upon a table. They were skulls, and the eyeless sockets flashed fire from within as they nodded their grisly heads to the swaying of the branches.

On the table under the bone-fruited tree were some of the doctor’s dissecting knives, gleaming balefully in the eye light from the skulls. There were crossed shinbones lying on the black tablecloth, white as the symbol of death on a pirate’s ensign, and more skulls— evidently windfalls from the boughs above. Between the jaws of one of these was a half-smoked cigarette, which the grinning head seemed to be thoroughly enjoying.

There were skeletons of hands, feet and other parts of the human bony building, mingled with the steel implements of surgical craft, and to many of these objects of cub-medico humor were attached cards bearing inscriptions as appropriate as witty.

By means of one of these inscriptions one skull complained bitterly of the unusually long time between drinks. Another, whose way in this world had probably strayed from the straight and narrow path, demanded ice and steam beer, while the head of a child declared it had been the victim of a mother’s neglect.

Dr. Wilcox is a demonstrator of anatomy in one of the colleges, and although the students of his class declare they never would do such a thing as desecrate a Christmas tree with the products of the grave, still the doctor is looking among them for the one who planned his pleasant Christmas surprise.

Source of the story: The San Francisco Call archive

Good Old Hospital Stink

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

Last time we explored early 19th-century hospitals as the perfect breeding ground for insects and diseases. 🐜 In the pre-germ-theory world, dirty clothes, unwashed linens, festering wounds, and limited access to clean water were pretty standard for a hospital experience, followed by outbursts of such diseases like rubella or cholera. 💀 Unfortunately, many surgeons contributed to this situation by not washing their hands, not disinfecting surgical instruments, and … glorifying their blood-soaked frock coats and surgical aprons. 🩸

You see, it was believed that the dirtier the surgical attire, the more busy and successful its owner was. 💉 Some surgeons even wore clothes that had previously belonged to retired staff members as a sign of respect and keeping traditions alive. Those who wore “butcher’s aprons” mostly did so to protect their private, nice clothing and didn’t wash them anyway. As you can imagine, these pus- and blood-soaked, never-washed items were basically rotting and gave out a putrid smell which was lovingly referred to as “the good old hospital stink.” 🧀

The situation slowly began to change in the mid-19th century, when several doctors (e.g. Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelweis, Thomas Dent Mütter) tried to popularize washing the surgical attire and promoted the idea of cleanliness in general, for which they were often ridiculed. 🧼

To learn more about 19th century hospitals, check out Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!

Bug-Catcher

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

In the early 19th century, a visit to a hospital was a horrific experience. 😱 The sanitary regime was non-existent and the putrid smells of disease, dirty linens, and unwashed clothes penetrated the hospital building and its walls. While wealthier people were cared for in their own homes, the poor were forced to withstand awful hospital conditions, where the probability of dying was three to five times higher than in a household. (That’s why hospitals used to be called “houses of death”). 💀 

No wonder that a hospital environment was a perfect ground for spreading both diseases and … insects. 🐜 While the former were still believed to caused by miasma, the latter seemed to be easier to deal with. A hospital infested by cockroaches or lice could hire a specialist called a bug-catcher. In fact, a Chief Bug-Catcher would earn more than a surgeon, whose job at this time was still closer to a barber-surgeon than to a fully-respected medical profession.

I found this fantastic description of the bug-catcher profession in Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!

The Kellogg Brothers

Food, Great Inventions

On August 8, 1894, John and William Kellog were busy preparing granola for the patients of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where the older brother (John) was the superintendent. No sooner had they cooked a batch of wheat than they were called to attend some other pressing matters. After some time they discovered that the wheat had gone stale, but they decided to process it further anyway. The wheat broke into flakes, which was quite surprising, but the brothers didn’t want to waste any food so they roasted the pieces and served them to the sanitarium patients. The new flaked cereal quickly became a success, so much so that the patients would even buy it from the sanitarium to bring back home! 🥣

This marvelous turn of events encouraged the brothers to start mass production of the cereal. To increase the popularity of the product even further, William proposed adding sugar for taste. 🍯 And that’s when the infamous family feud began. You see, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church of which doctor John Kellogg was a devout follower. He was especially focused on the church’s views on diet and health, which included promoting sexual abstinence. 💔 But what does it have to do with cereal? Well, John’s aim was to serve food that was as bland as possible so that it could serve as an anaphrodisiac and discourage any sexual activity, in particular masturbation which he saw as a deadly habit. He once even said that “neither the plague, nor war, nor small-pox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of onanism.” 😳😱 Now imagine how John could have responded to his brother’s idea of adding sweet sweet sugar to corn flakes! This event started a legal battle that ended in Will starting his own company which we know today as Kellogg’s. 🐓

I hope you’ll think of this tale of two brothers next time you enjoy your sweetened, mundane bowl of cereal.🥣

If you want to learn more about the views and practices of John Kellogg, check out this Sawbones episode. Fair warning though, John was a eugenicist with very disturbing ideas for “treating” some of his patients. 

Wash Your Hands

Epidemiology, Famous Victorians, Medicine

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. 💀

Original John Snow

Epidemiology, Famous Victorians, Medicine

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) 😀

Mad as a Hatter

Everyday Life, Medicine

Erethism, more commonly known as mad hatter disease, 🎩 is caused by mercury poisoning and can cause a variety of symptoms including tremors, timidness, anxiety, and even hallucinations. 🧚‍♀️It was quite common among hat-makers as they were exposed to mercury used in the manufacturing of felt hats.

Even though the Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 🐛doesn’t display all of these symptoms, his creation might have been inspired by erethism. We know that Lewis Carroll’s uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, was a Lunacy Commissioner supervising Pauper Lunatic Asylums. To keep patients busy, these asylums often organized group activities such as … tea parties. 🧐☕️

On a related note, check out this video about the “mad as a hatter” expression 🙂

Wax Noses

Cosmetics, Everyday Life, Medicine

The Edwardian Era brought a new craze in plastic surgery – paraffin wax injections.🕯 The promise of a perfect nose👃or chin quickly faded, when it turned out that wax could wander beneath the skin causing infections, blood clots, and even cancer. ☠️

For reference, I learned about upper class women fixing their wax noses in a great BBC documentary series Blood and Guts (there’s also a book available)