Victorian Childbirth

My grad school colleague Anne Huebel has penned an entry on Remedia: the history of medicine in dialogue with its present.

Managing Victorian Reproduction: Medical Authority over Childbirth in British Advice Literature

“Obey implicitly the advice and directions of your medical attendant.” Such was the advice of Dr. Thomas Bull for women in labor. Dr. Pye Henry Chavasse, Bull’s contemporary and rival in the advice literature industry, agreed. Doctors Bull and Chavasse wrote popular books on pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Like William Smellie a century earlier, they emphasized a doctor’s right to manage a woman’s health and to expect obedience in return for their medical care. Both authors described how women should regulate their lives and bodies prior to and during pregnancy, labor, and lying-in, all of which occurred in the patient’s home. On the surface, the books encouraged women to take control of their health; however, they in fact advanced the medical management of women’s bodies.

Much more at the link.

Radium Girls

From Buzzfeed, courtesy Elizabeth Keohane:

The Forgotten Story Of The Radium Girls, Whose Deaths Saved Thousands Of Workers’ Lives

During World War I, hundreds of young women went to work in clock factories, painting watch dials with luminous radium paint. But after the girls — who literally glowed in the dark after their shifts — began to experience gruesome side effects, they began a race-against-time fight for justice that would forever change US labor laws.

Read the whole thing.

Hitler Has Only Got One Ball

From the Guardian. No word on the testicular status of Goering, Himmler, or Goebbels:

Hitler really did have only one testicle, German researcher claims

Analysis of long-lost medical notes seems to confirm that Nazi leader suffered from cryptorchidism, or an undescended right testicle

The song sung in schoolyards by generations of British children mocking Adolf Hitler for only having “one ball” might be accurate after all.

A German historian has unearthed the Nazi leader’s long-lost medical records, which seem to confirm the urban legend that he only had one testicle.

The records, taken during a medical exam following Hitler’s arrest over the failedBeer hall putsch in 1923, show that he suffered from “right-side cryptorchidism”, or an undescended right testicle.

Notes written by Dr Josef Steiner Brin, the medical officer at Landsberg prison, state “Adolf Hitler, artist, recently writer” was otherwise “healthy and strong”.

Long thought to have been lost, the records of the examination surfaced at an auction in Bavaria in 2010 before swiftly being confiscated by the Bavarian government. They have only recently been properly studied by Professor Peter Fleischmann of Erlangen-Nuremberg University.

Normally, men’s testicles descend from inside the body into the scrotum during childhood, but Fleischmann told German newspaper Bild the records showed one of Hitler’s testicles was “probably stunted”.

The records seem to contradict long-running specualation that Hitler lost one testicle to shrapnel during the Battle of the Somme in the first world war.

That rumour was backed up by Franciszek Pawlar, a Polish priest and amateur historian, who claimed a German army medic who treated Hitler after the shrapnel incident told him about the injury.

The medical records also contradict Hitler’s childhood doctor, who told American interrogators in 1943 that the future Führer’s genitals were “completely normal”.

Wikipedia on the topic: Adolph Hitler’s Possible Monorchism.

The Tremulous Hand of Worcester

Interesting post at the OUP blog:

Scrutinizing the script of the medieval ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’



How would we know if a medieval person had a neurological disorder? If we did know, would it be possible to pinpoint the type of condition? What insight can we gain about the practical impact of disorders on medieval life? Fortunately, a physical record survives that provides a reliable window into the health of medieval people—or, at least, those who were able to write.

Handwriting captures the writer’s state of health: it requires fine motor control, as well as highly-developed cognitive abilities in spatial planning, spelling, and grammar. In the period before the fifteenth-century invention of the printing press, all texts had to be written out by hand. Writing could be a profession, or an act of devotion within a religious order. Contrary to popular belief, the medieval life was not universally short and brutal—some medieval scribes lived to be 70, 80, and possibly 90 years old. Thus, medieval writing offers a wealth of insight into the lives of young and old, healthy and unhealthy people.

Historians have long been fascinated by the ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’. His script was first described in 1878 as “von einer zitternden hand” (“by a shaking/trembling hand”), by the German scholar Julius Zupitza. This thirteenth-century scribe, whose name remains a mystery, was probably a monk at Worcester Cathedral Priory. His handwriting appears in over 20 books, providing us with rich material for our study. However, despite the interest provoked by his distinctive, shaky script, it has never before been analysed by a neurologist. With this in mind, we created an unconventional collaboration: a medieval palaeographer (a researcher of historical handwriting) working with a neurologist with a specialist interest in movement disorders, and began to scrutinize the script.

There’s more at the link, but to get the full story you’ll have to consult the latest issue of Brain. I had known about the work of Christine Franzen; Thorpe and Alty seem poised to expand our knowledge of the Tremulous Hand.

Y. Pestis

Interesting research being done on the microbe that caused the Black Death:

While studying Yersinia pestis, the bacteria responsible for epidemics of plague such as the Black Death, researchers have found a single small genetic change that fundamentally influenced the evolution of the deadly pathogen, and thus the course of human history.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, Wyndham Lathem, Ph.D., assistant professor in microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and first author Daniel Zimbler, Ph.D., a Feinberg post-doctoral fellow, demonstrated how the acquisition of a single gene caused the shift of Y. pestis from causing a primarily gastrointestinal infection to a more serious and often fatal respiratory disease.

They further showed how later modifications of this gene enhanced infections associated with the bubonic plague.

Lathem and his team inserted the Pla gene into this strain to observe changes in the health of the lungs. They found the newly mutated strain had gained the ability to cause respiratory infection identically to modern strains of Y. pestis that cause disease today, demonstrating that the Pla gene was necessary for Y. pestis to infect the lungs. In addition, they found that no other changes to Y. pestis were required, even though the bacteria has continued to gain and lose genes over the last several thousand years.

The lab also looked at variations of the gene Pla and discovered that a single modification only found in modern strains of Y. pestis was a critical adaptation for the bacteria to spread in the body and infect the lymph nodes, a form of the infection that causes bubonic plague. According to Lathem, the surprising conclusion from this aspect of the study is that, contrary to current thinking in the field, Y. pestis may have first evolved as a respiratory pathogen before it could cause the more common form of disease, bubonic plague.

Lathem said the new research may explain how Y. pestis transitioned from causing only localized outbreaks of plague to the pandemic spread of Y. pestis such as the sixth century’s Justinian Plague and the fourteenth century’s Black Death.


An article from the BBC, courtesy my friend Alex Lesk Blomerus:


Post-traumatic stress ‘evident in 1300BC’

By James Gallagher

Evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder can be traced back to 1300BC – much earlier than previously thought – say researchers.

The team at Anglia Ruskin University analysed translations from ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia.

Accounts of soldiers being visited by “ghosts they faced in battle” fitted with a modern diagnosis of PTSD.

The condition was likely to be as old as human civilisation, the researchers concluded.

Prof Jamie Hacker Hughes, a former consultant clinical psychologist for the Ministry of Defence, said the first description of PTSD was often accredited to the Greek historian Herodotus.

Referring to the warrior Epizelus during the battle of Marathon in 490BC he wrote: “He suddenly lost sight of both eyes, though nothing had touched him.”

But Prof Hughes’ report – titled Nothing New Under the Sun – argues there are references in the Assyrian Dynasty in Mesopotamia between 1300BC and 609BC.

In that era men spent a year being toughened up by building roads, bridges and other projects, before spending a year at war and then returning to their families for a year before starting the cycle again.

Prof Hughes told the BBC News website: “The sorts of symptoms after battle were very clearly what we would call now post-traumatic stress symptoms.

“They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”

A diagnosis and understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder emerged after the Vietnam War. It was dismissed as shell shock in World War One.

Prof Hughes said: “As long as there has been civilisation and as long as there has been warfare, there has been post-traumatic symptoms. It’s not a 21st Century thing.”


It would have been nice if they had named and actually quoted the sources pointing to this. Note that the headline claims PTSD was “evident in 1300 BC”, and the article says it was during the Assyrian empire, “between 1300 and 609 BC.” My hunch is that the sources are probably from the later end of that span, perhaps contained in some of the 20,000 cuneiform tablets excavated at Nineveh and now in the British Museum.

(Groundbreaking work on the topic of historical PTSD was done by Jonathan Shay in his 1994 book, Achilles in Vietnam, which examined veterans of combat in Vietnam in light of the characters in Homer’s Iliad.)

Speaking of cuneiform, I recommend Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, which my wife got me for Christmas.