Category Archives: Blog

The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme

Hello, and welcome to Giants’ Shoulders #58, the monthly online carnival of history of science blogging, this month hosted at Asylum Science. There have been a whole load of interesting posts and programmes on the history of science, technology and medicine recently, so here’s a round-up of what caught my eye: a bit like the Top 40, but without the (public) ding-dong battle over what to include.


Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013): pictured not inventing soft-scoop ice cream

With the death of Margaret Thatcher (pictured right), histories of politics (and economics) in the second half of the twentieth century seem to have dominated the news in the UK over the last week. But, that doesn’t mean historians of science had nothing to say about the Iron Lady. Over at the Guardian’s Political Science blog, Jon Agar and Alice Bell both commented on Thatcher’s ambiguous relationship with science policy (and even more ambiguous relationship with Mr Whippy). And, looking forward in the field of science policy, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon discussed the positive role that historians of science can play in political decision-making. Before this, history in general (but only in relation to Britain) had become something of a political football in the heated responses to Michael Gove’s proposed new national curriculum (discussed last month by Seb Falk). Add this to the ongoing debates over open access and the impact agenda, and the rise of pseudo-academic journals, and there are plenty of contemporary issues for historians of science to be mindful of. Robin Schleffer’s thoughts on ‘slow science’, Patrick McCray on the opium of technology, the ever thoughtful contributions of Will Thomas, and the recent focus section in Isis on the Future of the History of Science (free access), also give plenty of food for thought on the future directions of the discipline.

Troubled Minds

Emotional Time Machine

There was further 80s revisionism on the BBC as it commemorated the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Prozac. In fact, there have been a few interesting Radio 4 shows on the history of psychiatry recently, and on BBC 2 there is a series currently airing on Royal Illnesses, including an obligatory retrospective diagnosis of George III (whose recovery was celebrated with a blaze of light). Elsewhere in London, Chris Millard queried the possibility of equating emotional states across different centuries, as he took audiences back in time in a Carnival of Lost Emotions, as part of a Festival of Neuroscience. Thomas Dixon examined the complex meanings that can be attributed to weeping, Lisa Smith raised the historical problems of measuring physical or emotional pain and linking it with particular brain states, and Jesse Bering reported on the surprisingly sexual etymology of the neuro-anatomical terms used for the brain’s different parts.

In his Trying Biology blog, Adam Shapiro wrote a couple of interesting posts on the links between anti-evolutionary thinking and, firstly, the anti-eugenics movement, and secondly, antidisestablishmentarianism. Laura Jane Martin noted Darwin’s interest in monstrosities, David Bressan recounted Charles Lyell’s search for the sea snake, and Romeo Vitelli wrote about early 20th century attempts to train chimpanzees. Outside of the academy, Bess Lovejoy presents the story of Orrill Stapp, whose search for the Other World was recorded at the Seattle Public Library. Importantly, if you want to understand human character, look here.

Doctors, Patients, Poisons and Potions

Brains weren’t the only suggested source of mental illnesses, however, as Jennifer Wallis explored in her post on the surgical origins of post-operative insanity. Meanwhile, Maev Kennedy reports on the happier products of surgery, as the design for a statue of the WWII plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe and his ‘Guinea Pigs’ was unveiled in East Grinstead. The Dead Bell blog uncovered an individual (though perhaps typical) case of industrial poisoning from chemical dyes in early 20th century USA; Linda M. Richards detailed the widespread poisoning of Navajo people and land by uranium mining waste in the latter decades of the century; and Dominic Berry began investigating Sir William Gavin, who may well have poisoned the entire English countryside! Bloggers from the British Library looked at the roles of Indian doctors and the East India Company in combating outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century. Jennifer Evans considered the intriguing relationships between doctors and patients in the early modern period, and the way the location of treatment affected their position (anyone fancy staying with their surgeon for a few weeks?). On the subject of human reproduction, Lisa Plotkin writes about the presence of ‘foreign bodies’ in pregnant women, including slippery elm bark and uterine fibroids (UCL have an exhibition on this theme, open until July); at the Dittrick Museum, Brandy Schillace traces the emergence and disappearance of William Smellie’s 18th century birthing automaton (see also the story of another, chess-playing automaton); and, following the passing of Sir Robert Edwards (1925-2013), this 2010 article (free access) provides an interesting account of the hostile reception to his IVF research in the early 1970s.

Food stuffs and ingenious concoctions were also popular this month. At the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsey Fitzharris discussed the Victorian hostility to masturbation, which led to the production of graham crackers and cornflakes, among other things! Thony Christie provided a lovely Roman recipe for stuffed dormouse delicately seasoned with fermented fish sauce, and also presented us with an account of Dr Thomas Moffet, a Paracelsian practitioner who recommended salt for a healthy sex life. Also at the Recipes Project, Tillmann Taape outlined the heavenly properties of super-distilled wine, and Ashley Buchanan looked at the secret medicines produced at the Medici court. From the concoctinghistory blog we got ancient recipes for soap, Rebecca Unsworth took us through the history and processes of producing a starched ruff, and Fiona Keates described the solid food and detestable coffee served at the Royal Society under Sir Joseph Banks.

A Ruff Made by Rebecca Unsworth Once Starched. Photo © Rebecca Unsworth, Courtesy of the School of Historical Dress.

Picturing, Measuring, and Exploring

Albert Einstein holding a puppet of Albert Einstein.

Images remain a popular subject in the history of science, and there were plenty of wonderful pictures to see in the blogosphere. At The H-Word, Rebekah Higgitt began a series on ‘Picturing Science’, exploring a range of paintings, caricatures and slides from the National Maritime Museum’s collections, whilst Vanessa Heggie recounted the physiological planning that went into flying over, and photographing, Mount Everest. Felicity Henderson considered Robert Hooke’s Micrographia - the first fully illustrated book of microscopy – and Nehemiah Grew’s Musaeum Regalis SocietisMike Rendell illustrated the varied career of an image based on Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden; Google honoured the illustrations of Maria Sibylla Merian; Keith Moore looked at blue lizards; Genotopia turned attention back to composite photography; John F. Ptak presented pictures of star clustersSt Andrews Special Collections and Paula Findlen discussed the work of Athanasius Kircher; and Albert Einstein held a puppet of himself (above right). At Scientific American, Clarissa Ai Ling Lee began a detailed study of the culture of scientific diagrams, beginning with examples from mathematics and physics.

The clocks went forward for British Summer Time, but the loss of sleep didn’t affect the Board of Longitude Project blog, where a constant stream of posts covered topics including: setting the date for Easter; timekeeping on the Bounty; and using earwax to fix quadrants. For those of us looking at the stars, there was Thony Christie on grumpy astronomers in the late 17th century, Alice Sage on star-gazing girls in the 18th century (see also these other great links about women in science), Imogen Clarke on early 20th century astronomical expeditions (and the split between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics), and Amy Shira Teitel on cosmonauts stranded in the Siberian forest. There were also stories of travel that included Edmond Halley on HMS Paramore, Charles Wilkes on the last great worldwide sailing expedition, Vincent Lunardi in a balloon, Albert Einstein sailing around in search of wisdom, and forensic biologists in search of Tycho Brahe’s nose. Finally, we also learned that Tom Lehrer (of ‘The Elements Song’ fame) turned 85 recently, that Michael Faraday occasionally failed, and that Sherlock Holmes was a great chemist.

The End

Phew! Well hopefully that should be enough reading to keep everyone busy for an hour or two. Thanks to Lisa Smith, Thony Christie and Rebekah Higgitt for all their suggestions, and thanks to you for visiting our website. Giants’ Shoulders #59 will return again on 16 May 2013 in… Something by Virtue of Nothing, a blog run by Kata Phusin ( You can send your suggestions directly to Kata, or to Thony Christie at The Renaissance Mathematicus.

Bones, breaking strain, and the insane body in 19th-century asylum practice

In January 1870, author Charles Reade wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette to make some sensational claims about the conduct of asylum attendants. Whilst researching his book Hard Cash – in which a young man ends up confined in a lunatic asylum – Reade said he had seen alarming evidence of the tactics used by attendants to subdue the patients in their care. ‘The refractory patient’, he wrote, ‘is thrown down and the keeper walks up and down him on his knees, and even jumps on his body, knees downwards, until he is completely cowed.’ He thus suggested that he had hit upon the answer to a burning question of the day: how was it that so many patients in asylums seemed to sustain fractures?

Within the space of a few months, a number of cases were reported in which patients had been found to have extensive fractures at post mortem – one exhibiting an astonishing eight broken ribs and broken breastbone. The Pall Mall Gazette was not the only media outlet to voice its concerns about the care of the insane in Britain; an article in the British Medical Journal listed several instances of broken ribs, prompting a significant backlash from alienist members of the British Medical Association when it asserted that ‘rib-crushing, though the favourite, seems not to be the only mode in which lunatics are hurried out of existence … [In] 1869 a patient … was boiled in his bath’.

These were serious allegations, and the last quarter of the nineteenth century saw the issue of ill treatment in the asylum gain prominence. In the 1880s and nineties, with the development of training and certification for asylum nurses, handbooks advised staff on how to handle patients carefully, to spot the signs of fracture, and to subdue excitable patients who were especially vulnerable to injury.

The dialogue around broken bones also spread to the asylum laboratory, with some pathologists undertaking post-mortem tests to determine if the bones of the insane were inherently weak or brittle. Visual evidence of bone disease was mentioned in a number of articles on the topic: doctors and pathologists described bones that were ‘soft and boggy’ or ‘like sponge soaked in fat’. There was also a desire, though, to quantify such anomalous appearances more minutely. Theo Hyslop, when working as a Clinical Assistant at the West Riding Asylum, had used ‘an ordinary concrete testing machine’ to measure the strength of ribs at post-mortem. In 1893 Charles Mercier distributed a special instrument he had devised for the purpose. First, one ‘extract[ed] a certain length of the eighth pair of ribs’. Then, the lengths were put into the instrument, one tested against its concavity, the other against its convexity.The instrument ‘had a stirrup at one end and a screw at the other, and between these was a spring which registered the number of pounds pressure exerted. The bone … was put through the stirrup resting on the fork of the machine; the screw was then turned till the rib broke’. He sent this instrument to a number of asylums, as well as some London hospitals; though it is difficult to find much evidence of its use, it was certainly employed at length by Alfred Campbell at Lancashire’s Rainhill Asylum, who attempted to tabulate ‘breaking strain’ by type of mental illness.

Alfred Campbell’s results were most specific, confidently identifying an average breaking strain of 44.8lbs convex and 44.4lbs concave in his male general paralytic (neurosyphilitic) subjects, compared to 62lbs and 65lbs respectively in a healthy adult male. (Similar meticulous records of breaking strain can be seen in Francis Simpson’s Pathological Statistics of Insanity, where breaking strain by mental disease/sex etc. was recorded alongside brain weights.) Campbell’s second paper on the subject was more hesitant. Published only a few months later, this paper cast doubt on the link between fragile bones and insanity: ‘The difference between the average breaking strain of the ribs of the insane and that of the ribs of persons free from mental disease is not so great as one would anticipate’. In his comparative sample of 58 Rainhill Asylum patients and 50 Royal Southern Hospital patients, Campbell found very little difference between the rib breaking strain of the male asylum patient and that of the male general hospital patient. Explaining this, he theorised that wasting diseases had greater influence upon bone structure than mental afflictions – and indeed, many pauper asylum patients were in poor health.

Though the results of experiments like Campbell’s were often inconclusive and of little help to the living patient, the idea of bone fragility was incorporated into asylum administrative practices: at the West Riding Asylum, ‘breaking strain’ was consistently recorded at post-mortem from 1895 until around 1902.

Mercier’s instrument was not enduring in its impact: analysing 200 post-mortems at the West Riding, William Maule Smith in 1903 chose not to use it, instead basing his conclusions ‘on the ease with which fracture was produced by digital compression’ (Mercier, in the audience listening to Smith’s paper, unsurprisingly did not agree with Smith’s method!).

Bizarre as these experiments may seem to us now, the idea that the insane were peculiarly prone to bone disease and fracture was one that fitted logically alongside wider theories about both disease susceptibility and the general health of the asylum patient in the late nineteenth century. Quantifying rib strength did not, though, change the basic fact that patients were vulnerable individuals: the key figure remained the asylum attendant whose responsibilities were unchanged by the suggestion that some patients were especially liable to fracture. Via the lab then, the bones of the patient became capable of mediating not only asylum research, but also everyday practices and social relations – objects both constructed and constructing, and a sign that the insane body was not a merely passive one, even in death.

Further reading

Anonymous, ‘A social blot’, British Medical Journal (22 Oct. 1870).

Alfred W. Campbell, ‘The breaking strain of the ribs of the insane: an analysis of a series of fifty-eight cases tested with an instrument specially devised by Dr C.H. Mercier’, Journal of Mental Science 41 (1895).

Alfred W. Campbell, ‘A comparison between the breaking strain of the ribs of the sane and insane’, British Medical Journal (28 Sept. 1895).

W. Lauder Lindsay, ‘Mollities ossium in relation to rib-fracture among the insane’. Edinburgh Medical Journal 16 (1870).

Charles Mercier, The Attendant’s Companion: a manual of the duties of attendants in lunatic asylums (London: J & A Churchill, 1898).

George H. Pedler, ‘Mollities ossium and allied diseases’, in James Crichton-Browne (ed.) West Riding Lunatic Asylum Medical Reports 1 (London: J & A Churchill, 1871).

Charles Reade, ‘How lunatics’ ribs get broken’, Pall Mall Gazette 1541 (20 Jan. 1870).

Francis O. Simpson, The Pathological Statistics of Insanity (London: Baillière, Tindall & Cox, 1900).

William Maule Smith, ‘On the nature of fragilitas ossium in the insane’, British Medical Journal (3 Oct. 1903).

- Jennifer Wallis