Category Archives: 19th century

1895: Voting turns women into barbarians, says Dr Weir

James Weir Jr. (1856-1906) was an American physician, naturalist and author. Born into a prominent Kentucky family, Weir obtained a medical degree before setting up a practice in his native Owensboro. The wider medical community came to know Weir through his prolific writings. A student of Charles Darwin, Dr Weir wrote extensively about the distinctions between human beings and animals. He was particularly fascinated by regressive and animalistic behaviours in humans.

Among the works published by Weir were Pygmies in the United States, Religion and Lust and Dawn of Reason, or Mental Traits in the Lower Animals. In an essay called “A Little Excursion into Savagery”, Weir confesses to taking a week off every June so he can romp around the Kentucky forest “living like a savage”, dwelling in a cave and eating roasted squirrel. Weir was also willing to use his pseudo-scientific theories as a political device. In 1894, he penned an essay asserting that striking and rioting workers were “evidence of [evolutionary] degeneration”.

The following year, Weir went even further, claiming that female suffrage would create to generations of degenerate women with unhealthy masculine features. He cited historical examples of oversexed and overly masculine female leaders, including Messalina, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I (“she was more man than woman”) and Catherine the Great (“a dipsomaniac and a creature of unbounded and inordinate sensuality”). If women were given the vote and access to political power, Weir claimed, over time they become “viragints”:

“Viraginity has many phases… The tomboy who abandons her dolls and female companions for the marbles and masculine sports of her boy acquaintances… The loud talking, long stepping, slang using young woman… The square-shouldered, stolid, cold, unemotional, unfeminine android…”

According to Weir, those who promote female suffrage and equal rights – suffragettes and campaigners like Susan B. Anthony – are already viragints, “individuals who plainly show that they are physically abnormal”. Extending suffrage to women would cause a slow but inevitable and widespread shift toward viraginity:

“The simple right to vote carries with it no immediate danger. The danger comes afterward, probably many years after the establishment of female suffrage, when woman, owing to her atavistic tendencies, hurries ever backward toward the state of her barbarian ancestors. I see in the establishment of equal rights, the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors…”

Weir died in agony of ‘abdominal dropsy’ while holidaying in Virginia Beach. He was 50 years old. Fourteen years after his death, an amendment to the United States Constitution gave American women full suffrage.

Source: James Weir Jr. MD, “The Effect of Female Suffrage on Posterity” in The American Naturalist, vol.29, September 1895. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1879: Music lessons cause “menstrual mischief”

Dr Robert Lawson Tait

Robert Lawson Tait (1845-1899) was a Scottish physician, famous for his pioneering research and treatments in gynaecology and abdominal surgery. Educated in his native Edinburgh, Tait moved south after graduation and set up practice in Birmingham. He became interested in reproductive medicine after watching helplessly as two patients suffered agonising deaths from ectopic pregnancies.

Tait began to research, develop and undertake surgical interventions for conditions with high mortality rates. In his three-decade career, Tait conducted and refined several groundbreaking operations, including excision of the ovaries, ruptured Fallopian tubes, appendectomies and gallbladder removal.

For all his surgical brilliance, however, Tait was prone to antiquated views, particularly about the causes of ovarian and reproductive disease. Like less esteemed doctors, Tait rejected viral and bacterial causes and instead put a good deal of blame on social factors. He was particularly opposed to girls and young women being subjected to music lessons. Tait argued that music was “a strong excitant of the emotions” that “agitated ovarian activity” and disturbed the developing female reproductive organs.

In the case of a teenage girl who was bedridden by hyperaemia and anaemia during her monthly period, Tait’s first step was to cancel her piano lessons:

“My first advice was that the patient should be removed from school and that for six months, all instruction, especially in music, should cease. I notice music especially, for I am quite certain that instruction in that art, as carried out in boarding schools, has to answer for a great deal of menstrual mischief. To keep a young girl during her first efforts of sexual development, seated upright on a music still with her back unsupported, drumming vigorously at a piano for several hours, can only be detrimental.

In life, Tait was a charismatic but unusual figure. Short and rotund, he waddled like a penguin and was occasionally given to eccentric dress. He was also a big drinker and notorious womaniser, who apparently enjoyed using the female reproductive organs as well as treating them.

In his final years, Tait was accused of fathering an illegitimate child with one of his nurses, a scandal that brought him some public discredit. His premature death in 1899 was ascribed to renal failure, though some believe it was brought on by venereal disease.

Source: Robert Lawson Tait, Diseases of Women, 1879. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1821: Hot iron and straightjacket cures self pollution

self pollution
One word: “Ouch”.

In 1826 the British medical journal Lancet reported a case of “idiocy accompanied with nymphomania”, successfully treated by Dr Graefe of Berlin. The unnamed patient was born in 1807 and remained apparently healthy until 14 months of age, at which point she was struck down by severe fever and bedridden for almost two years. This illness took a toll on the girl’s mental faculties: according to her childhood physician she was unable to talk and “exhibited unequivocal marks of idiocy”.

The patient’s deterioration continued until 1821, shortly after her 14th birthday, when Dr Graefe was first called to attend:

“He soon perceived that the girl had an insatiable propensity for self-pollution, which she performed either by rubbing her extremities on a chair or by the reciprocal fright of her thighs. From this time there could be no doubt [about] the treatment of the case.”

Dr Graefe ordered a three-step treatment for self-pollution:

“A bandage was applied, capable of preventing friction in the sitting position… A straight waistcoat was put on her at bedtime, and counter-irritation by the application of a hot iron to the neighbourhood of the part affected.”

In June 1822 Dr Graefe, deciding that insufficient progress had been made, carried out an “excision of the clitoris”. After the wound had healed the patient made a slow but steady recovery, to the point where she can “talk, read, reckon accounts, execute several kinds of needlework and play a few easy pieces on the pianoforte.”

Source: Revue Medicale, Oct. 1826, cited in The Lancet, vol. 9, 1826. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1823: Beware shirkers with garlic in their rear end

John Ayrton Paris

John Ayrton Paris (1785-1856) was a British physician and medical researcher. The scion of a medical family, Paris was privately tutored before attending Cambridge, where he earned degrees in science and medicine. After practising in London, Paris returned to Cambridge to combine lecturing with research in several areas. Among Paris’ research findings were correlations between workplace conditions and various forms of cancer. He also developed the thaumatrope, a two-sided picture disc spun on a thread which proved the theory that images are briefly retained on the retina.

Paris later became a Fellow of the Royal Society and president of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1823, he collaborated with lawyer Jacques Fonblanque on a three-volume guide to legal issues affecting doctors. The first volume included chapters on forensic medicine, malpractice, public health legislation and the legal status of the physically and mentally ill. One chapter deals exclusively with individuals who “feign or simulate” disease to:

“…obtain military exemptions and discharges… certain civil disqualifications… derive parochial relief or pecuniary assistance… for procuring release from confinement or exemption from punishment… or the comfortable shelter and retreat of a hospital.”

Paris goes on to offer advice for spotting these fakers. The “feigned maniac never willingly looks his examiner in the face”, Paris advised. Pretend catatonics can be roused to movement by unveiling a cauterising iron. Faux epileptics often present with frothing at the mouth “by chewing soap”. Some have presented with jaundice after colouring their skin yellow with dye. One woman “swallowed a quantity of bullock’s blood” then “vomited it up in the presence of a physician”. Another vomited up urine, even though “the event is physiologically impossible”.

Similarly, inventive methods were used to fake a severe fever, including:

“…[presenting] after a night’s debauch… by smoking cumin seeds… whitening the tongue with chalk… and we have heard that a paroxysm of fever may be excited and kept up by the introduction of a clove of garlic into the rectum.”

Source: J. Paris & J. Fonblanque, Medical Jurisprudence, Vol. 1, London, 1823. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1804: Med student tests theory by drinking black vomit

Stubborns Ffirth

Stubbins Ffirth (1784-1820) was an American doctor, best known for his bizarre self-experimentation as a medical student. Born and raised in Salem, New Jersey, Ffirth commenced studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 1801. In his third year, Ffirth began to investigate the causes and communicability of yellow fever. This virus was a deadly constant in tropical areas but occasionally appeared in colder cities; a 1793 outbreak in Philadelphia killed several thousand people.

The causes of yellow fever were then unknown. The most popular theory, propagated by prominent physician Benjamin Rush, suggested it was spread by miasma or ‘bad air’. The young Stubbins Ffirth came to the conclusion that the fever was transmitted in body fluids and excrements, particularly vomit. In 1804, he undertook a series of experiments, summarising his findings in a brief manuscript. His first trials involved feeding or injecting animals with black vomit, harvested from the bedsides of dying yellow fever patients – but they failed to prove Ffirth’s theory:

“Experiment One: A small sized dog was confined in a room and fed upon bread soaked in the black vomit. At the expiration of three days, he became so fond of it that he would eat the ejected matter without bread; it was therefore discontinued…”

Ffirth also tried other methods of infecting dogs and cats, again without definitive results. One dog died ten minutes after having an ounce of vomit injected into its jugular vein, while others remained healthy. After five inconclusive experiments Ffirth stopped working with animals and began to experiment on himself:

“On October 4th 1802, I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit… a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily.”

Undaunted, Ffirth continued filling himself with the vomit of dying yellow fever patients, injecting it into veins, under his cuticles and into his eye. For his tenth experiment, he fried up three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaled the steam. Next he constructed his own ‘vomit sauna’, sitting at length in a small closet with six ounces of steaming vomit. Ffirth eventually cut to the chase and decided to take his black vomit directly:

“After repeating the two last experiments several times, and with precisely the same results, I took half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient, and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it. The taste was very slightly acid… It neither produced nausea or pain… My pulse, which was beating 76 in a minute, moderately strong and full, was not altered either in force or frequency… No more effect was produced than if I had taken water alone.”

Ffirth remained in perfect health but was not one to give up. He decided to repeat these experiments “a great number of times”, eventually drinking several doses of vomit, “half an ounce to two ounces without dilution”. Even this had no effect, leaving Ffirth to concede that yellow fever was not carried in human vomit. The real source of the transmission of yellow fever – human blood plasma carried by mosquitos – was discovered by US Army physician Major Walter Reed in 1901.

Source: Stubborns Ffirth, A Treatise on Malignant Fever, with an attempt to prove its non-contagious nature, Philadelphia, 1804. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.