A Cabinet of Medical Curiositiesby Jan Bondeson
Long ago, curiosities were arranged in cabinets for display: a dried mermaid might be next to a giant's shinbone, the skeletons of conjoined twins beside an Egyptian mummy. In ten essays, Jan Bondeson brings a physician's diagnostic skills to various unexpected, gruesome, and extraordinary aspects of the history of medicine: spontaneous human combustion,… See more details below
Long ago, curiosities were arranged in cabinets for display: a dried mermaid might be next to a giant's shinbone, the skeletons of conjoined twins beside an Egyptian mummy. In ten essays, Jan Bondeson brings a physician's diagnostic skills to various unexpected, gruesome, and extraordinary aspects of the history of medicine: spontaneous human combustion, colonies of snakes and frogs living in a person's stomach, kings and emperors devoured by lice, vicious tribes of tailed men, and the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal.
Bondeson tells the story of Mary Toft, who gained notoriety in 1726 when she allegedly gave birth to seventeen rabbits. King George I, the Prince of Wales, and the court physicians attributed these monstrous births to a "maternal impression" because Mary had longed for a meal of rabbit while pregnant. Bondeson explains that the fallacy of maternal impressions, conspicuous in the novels of Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens, has ancient roots in Chinese and Babylonian manuscripts.
Bondeson also presents the tragic case of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian woman with thick hair growing over her body and a massive overgrowth of the gums that gave her a simian or ape-like appearance. Called the Ape Woman, she was exhibited all over the world. After her death in 1860, Julia's husband, who had also been her impresario, had her body mummified and continued to exhibit it throughout Europe. Bondeson tracked the mummy down and managed to diagnose Julia Pastrana's condition as the result of a rare genetic syndrome.
Bondeson, a London-based physician who specializes in rheumatology and internal medicine and has a Ph.D. in experimental medicine, appears to have a genuine love for the weird: Many of the illustrations in this odd little work bear the note "from the author's collection." Those fascinated by tabloid journalism's sensational reports of spontaneous human combustion or the birth of nonhuman creatures to human mothers will, however, probably be disappointed by Bondeson's rather scholarly approach. He traces the rise and decline of beliefs in these and other strange phenomena, reveals the motives of the parties involved, and offers a medical explanation where appropriate. Among his topics are the fear of premature burial and the extraordinary mechanical precautions taken by some to avoid that fate, the notion that a race of giants once walked the earth, and the belief in a race of people with tails. Bondeson then dwells on the cases of four unusual individuals whose fate was to be exhibited like sideshow freaks. Today the Hunterian, a London museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, houses the double skull of the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal and the skeletons of the huge Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant, and the tiny Caroline Crachami, a dwarf known as the Sicilian Fairy. The mummy of the fourth individual, Julia Pastrana, known as the Ape-Woman for her hairy body and misshapen face, is in a medical museum in Oslo, Norway.
With its numerous illustrations of these poor creatures, this in-depth Believe It or Not can be seen as a continuation of the exploitation that marked their lives.
Meet the Author
Jan Bondeson, a physician, holds a Ph.D. in experimental medicine and works at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London.
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