Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant's helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A Peculiar Postscript

Eighteenth-century letters generally contain an excess of politeness, even when one correspondent rebuked another. But every now and then, letter recipients must have been left scratching their heads—and not because of head lice…

In 1732, the Dowager Countess of Ferrers wrote to Mrs Hinde, asking her to take the letter along with payment to Sir Hans Sloane for advice on an eye problem. The letter begins with an apology for not writing to Mr Hinde. This the Countess blamed on her eye trouble, which “render’d it [writing] so uneasy to me that I now never attempt it but when forced by Business of necessity”. The Countess then found the energy to write a lengthy letter (about 1200 words) on her eye problem. Well then, that put the Hindes in their place: she was only writing because she wanted something.

Of course, there was an obvious status difference between writer and recipient here. The rules for polite behaviour that were so integral to the Republic of Letters (or when a lower-ranking person wrote to a higher-ranking recipient) did not apply when the letter writer was the social superior. The Hindes probably thought nothing of this particular comment.

But still, the real charm clincher comes in the postscript.

I am glad yr young baby and misses have so much Health & strength & gives so much entertainment to ye whole Family, I cannot say that I ever could give into ye amusement of being able to divert my self with little Children but I have often envy’d those that found pleasure in them & therefore give Mrs Hinde Joy upon that occasion.

Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant's helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Two mothers with crying babies and one in a walking frame; comparing the human infant’s helplessness with the self-sufficiency of newborn animals. Engraving by P. Galle, c. 1563. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Righto. And this is what I hear it as:

Congratulations on the birth of your baby, if that’s what makes you happy. I hate small kids. And I’m sorry not sorry that I never liked them.

Anyway, social status notwithstanding, the Countess’ somewhat peculiar (if unintentionally hilarious) postscript surely must have left the Hindes wondering how long they could reasonably wait before passing on the letter to Sloane. And given that the Countess had sent the letter from France, there could have been any number of possible reasons for a delay.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On Tooth Worms

St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.
St. Apollonia, patron saint of tooth pain. Francisco de Zurbaran, 1636.

The 9th of February is St. Apollonia’s Day and, in the U.S., National Toothache Day. So I offer you tooth-worms, which–as Nicolas Andry described them in An account of the breeding of worms in human bodies (1701)—“occasion a deaf Pain mix’d with an itching in the teeth; they insensibly consume the Teeth, and cause a hideous Stink” (85). On 3 July 1700, John Chamberlayne wrote to Hans Sloane on the matter of his own tooth worms.

Now, these men were not people with particularly weird ideas, even for the time. Rather, the idea that toothaches were caused by worms had been around for a very long time. For a good overview of this verminous history, you should read Lindsey Fitzharris’ post on “The Battle of the Tooth Worm”.

This idea was still widely held in the late seventeenth century, even by the intellectual elite. For example, at a Royal Society meeting on 18 July 1678, Robert Hooke compared a growth within a tree trunk to tooth rot. At this point, Society members digressed into discussions of worms causing rot and the removal of tooth worms. In one case, a woman extracted the worms with a sharpened quill; in other cases, “the same thing was done by the help of the fumes of henbane seeds taken into the mouth; whereby the saliva falling into a basin of water held underneath, would discover several living worms, supposed to issue either from the gums or teeth”.[1]

Old knowledge could even, seemingly, be supported by investigations using new technologies. In a letter published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1684, Anton van Leewenhoek described his microscopical observations “about Animals in the Scurf of the Teeth”. Leeuwenhoek started with his own teeth, “kept usually clean”. He examined other samples of tooth plaque from two women, an eight-year old and two old men.Using his microscope, he discovered several sorts of creatures, some like worms, in the plaque—so many that “they exceed the number of Men in a kingdom”. These creatures, though, were present in sound, healthy teeth. Could these be tooth worms?

Leeuwenhoek was not so convinced by 1700 when two of his letters “concerning Worms Pretended to be Taken from the Teeth” was published in the Phil. Trans. He had examined two worms “taken out of a corrupt Tooth by smoaking”, one of which was still alive after four days in the post (sent on 4 July 1700). Leeuwenhoek believed it came from the egg of a type of fly that laid their eggs in cheese. He rounded up more worms from his local friendly cheesemonger and ran several experiments (including watching the worms copulate).

As to how the worms ended up in the teeth… Teeth—or, flesh more specifically—were not the worms’ natural habitat. The flies took nine days to mature, but meat needed to be salted or smoked sooner. Leeuwenhoek instead believed that the worm specimens had come from a patient who

had some time before eaten Cheese laden with young Worms, or Eggs of the above-mention’d Flies, and that these Worms or Eggs were not touch’d or injur’d in the chewing of the Cheese, but stuck in the hollow Teeth.

Gnawing worms had caused the tooth pain. Or did they?

For his work on bodily worms, Andry had also examined some worms “that a Tooth-Drawer took off of a Lady’s Teeth in cleaning them”. Based on this case, Andry concluded that tooth worms rotted the teeth, but did not cause any pain. These small, long and slender worms with round black heads bred “under a Crust that covers the Surface of the Teeth when they’re disorder’d” (38).

To the modern reader, Leeuwenhoek’s argument is more sensible. Sure, there might be microscopic creatures living on the teeth, but they were not the same as the so-called tooth worms… which were really more cheese worms than anything. But at the time, Andry’s version would have been compelling. Worms were thought to breed in unclean conditions and, as Andry made clear, they could breed under a crust on an unhealthy tooth: it was the disorder in the tooth, not the worm, that caused the pain.

James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
James Gillray, Easing the Tooth-Ach, 1796. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

When John Chamberlayne, Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote to Sloane about his own tooth-worms, he did so in the interest of advancing knowledge and reporting on an efficacious treatment. He did not ask for Sloane’s advice, but instead reported on his visit to Mr. Upton, known for his “tooth-candling” expertise. Using heat and smoke, Upton removed rheum from Chamberlayne’s gums and extracted ten or twelve worms. This was apparently on the low side, since Upton on a really good day could remove sixty worms.

Chamberlayne claimed that he ordinarily had no faith in men such as Upton (meaning: irregular practitioners, sometimes known as quacks), but many gentlemen of his acquaintance had attested to the success of Upton’s treatment. Of course, given that Chamberlayne also described his teeth as “loose and corrupted”, he may also have been willing to try anything for what must have been terrible pain!

Chamberlayne was familiar with the wider discussions about bodily worms, referring, for example, to Leeuwenhoek’s 1684 article in the Phil. Trans. Besides the report, Chamberlayne may have taken a chance to do his bit for knowledge in another way: he may have sent Sloane some tooth worms. Is it just coincidence that Chamberlayne’s letter to Sloane was dated 3 July 1700 and that Leeuwenhoek referred to worm specimens sent on 4 July 1700?

Whatever the case, one moral of the story is: choose your cheese wisely if you have bad teeth.

[1] Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. 3 (1757): 428.

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano De
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Measles in History

The terror of smallpox lives on in popular memory, but measles are often dismissed by many as just a childhood disease: How much harm could it really cause? And aren’t childhood diseases useful for breaking in immune systems anyhow? We overlook measles at our peril, as recent outbreaks, such as the Disneyland one, have shown. It only takes one sick person for the disease to spread rapidly among those who can’t be vaccinated (such as babies), those whose vaccines are incomplete or unsuccessful, and those who opted out of vaccination.

But is measles really comparable to smallpox, or am I being a bit extreme? Well, in early modern Europe, measles—more specifically, its complications–was considered as deadly as smallpox.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In 1730, physician Thomas Fuller published Exanthematologia: Or, An Attempt to Give a Rational Account of Eruptive Fevers, especially of the Measles and Small Pox. Fuller addressed it to Sir Hans Sloane and the Royal College of Physicians. In part, this was a strategy to situate the book as part of the reformed and rationale medicine that Sloane championed as the College’s President.

But it would have appealed to Sloane who had promoted smallpox inoculation and had a longstanding interest in fevers. Not only did he help to popularise the use of Peruvian bark for treating fevers, regularly using it in his own practice, but he took an interest in the publication of Edward Strother’s Criticon Febrium: or, a critical essay on fevers in 1716 (Preface). Strother, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a fan of Peruvian bark (48).

Fuller classified and described the various types of fevers with rashes or pustules, concluding that the most dangerous were smallpox and measles. Although the two diseases were very different, they had something crucial in common, being contagions that could be spread through one’s breath or skin pores (93). These “venemous fevers” were produced by a venom that was mild, unless over-heated—then the fevers became “more killing than even the Plague itself” (119).

Measles, even in its most benign state, is a miserable experience. The symptoms include: coldness and shivering; yawning; queasiness and vomiting; anguish; headache and backache; quick and weak pulse; great heat and thirst; short, painful breathing and oppession of the breast; hypochondriac tension and pale urine; watchfulness and drowsiness; convulsions; weakness and heaviness; redness, swelling, and pricking of eyes, lids and brows; involuntary tears and sneezing; sore throat, hoarseness, runny nose, and perpetual cough (142).

Fuller noted that not only did the cough always come before the measles, but that the pain in one’s chest and shortness of breath were much worse in measles than smallpox (147-8). Measles could also become malignant, or as we’d call it today, develop complications. The fever would last longer than four days and the spots would erupt much more slowly. Worse yet, diarrhea and peripneumonia occurring afterwards could prove fatal (149-150). At this point, Fuller included excerpts from Thomas Sydenham’s observations of measles outbreaks during the 1670s (151-7).

Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano De Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Death carries off a child on his back. Etching by Stefano Della Bella, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It is Sydenham’s references to the personal devastation from the illness that caught my attention. In 1670, measles “seiz’d chiefly on Children; but spar’d none in any House they enter’d into” (151). By day 8, the spots cleared up, as was typical, but that is when the cough set in: “we are to observe, that at this Time the Fever, and Difficulty of Breathing are increased; and the Cough grown so cruelly troublesome, as to hinder Sleep Day and Night”. The cause of the children’s terrible coughs, Sydenham suggested, was poor management of the disease; they had “been kept too hot, and have taken hot Medicines, to drive, or keep out the Measles” (153). As we know now, complications are more likely to happen in people who have chronic conditions, the very young or elderly, and the malnourished.

So, how did Sydenham and Fuller treat measles? With “much the same Method of Cure with the Small-pox”. Not surprising, given that they were both classed as venomous diseases. Above all, “hot medicines and regimen are extreamly pernicious”. The patient should “eat no flesh”, only water-gruel, barley-broth and roasted apples (sometimes). To drink, the patient was allowed small beer or watered down milk. The patient was to remain in bed for two to three days during the eruption, so the morbose particles would leave through the skin (155-6).

The cough should be treated with a pectoral decoction, linctus and diacodium (poppy syrup): “Very rarely, if ever, will any one that useth this Method die”. If the cough continued, it could “bring great Danger”. Bleeding was the clear choice in that case. “I have (with great Success)”, Sydenham promised, “order’d even the youngest Infants to be let Blood in the Arm; and where the Case requir’d it, I have not fear’d to repeat the same.” This rescued “truly many Children that have been at Death’s Door”. As a bonus, bleeding treated the diarrhea by ridding the body of sharp humours (156-7).

No wonder measles was so feared, with Sydenham declaring that the pneumonia “is so fatal commonly after the Measles, that it may well be reckon’d the chief Minister of Death, destroying more than even the Small-Pox itself” (157). They didn’t know yet about the potential for brain damage or deafness! In the West, we’ve forgotten the real horror of epidemic diseases that killed children.

For some other historical discussions of measles, see The Wellcome Trust Blog on the development of vaccination programmes and Historiann on the early eighteenth-century treatments proposed by Cotton Mather.

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A Most Dangerous Rivalry

By James Hawkes

The Royal Society is in turmoil as competing factions battle for control. Not only is our hero Hans Sloane’s job on the line, but the very existence of the Royal Society hangs in the balance…

 Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)
Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

No this is not the TV Guide summary of a niche costume drama, but the results of a bitter dispute between Dr. Hans Sloane and Dr. John Woodward in 1710. Not only did these men have starkly different visions for the future of the Royal Society, but they were competitors for rare curiosities and specimens. It’s perhaps not surprising that the men became rivals! Woodward launched a concerted campaign to unseat Sloane, which nearly succeeded.

Woodward, professor of Physic at Gresham College, championed a highly empirical and experimental approach for the Royal Society. He resented Sloane’s tendency to publish an increasingly ‘miscellaneous’ assortment of articles in  the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions–particularly those written by Sloane’s friends. (This was, admittedly, a complaint even by men who liked Sloane!) Woodward naturally considered the man most disadvantaged by this unjust state of affairs to be himself.  He made it his mission to save the Royal Society from those he feared would undermine the scientific progress of mankind.

Sloane and Woodward actually had much in common: they were both medical doctors with a deep-seated curiosity about the natural world. They were also active in the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Both earned considerable respect for their scholarly endeavours: Sloane, for his botanical work on the West Indies, and Woodward, for his prolific writings, especially on geology. Each man had a circle of scientific contacts across the British Empire and the Continent.

Sloane and Woodward also built impressive collections of natural and antiquarian items, preserved for posterity by (respectively) the British Museum and the Woodward Professorship at Cambridge. Woodward is even on record in a letter to Sloane declaring that he thought himself Sloane’s friend… albeit in the context of trying to explain away intemperate remarks about Sloane.

But the Devil is always in the details. Sloane had a reputation for collecting pretty much anything that fell into his hands. Woodward, however, focused on what he thought to be academically useful. These different approaches helped Woodward to drive a  wedge between Sloane and Sir Isaac Newton (then President of the Royal Society), who had little respect for Sloane’s collecting habits.

The situation finally exploded in 1709 when Sloane, as First Secretary of the Royal Society,  published a book review by Woodward’s long-standing enemy Edward Lhwyd. In his review of the work of a Swiss geologist, Lhwyd went out of his way to ridicule Woodward’s theories. Woodward demanded satisfaction. One contemporary said he did not know if the affair would end

whether by the sword or by the pen. If the former, Dr. Mead has promised to be Dr. Sloane’s second.(Levine)

A distinct possibility for resolving the conflict. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Noodleki
One conflict resolution option. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Noodleki.

Dr. Mead was, of course, another one of the many enemies that Woodward was so good at making. Indeed, ten years later Mead and Woodward duelled to resolve a dispute on the best way to treat smallpox. There are many versions of what happened. According to one, with Woodward defeated Mead bellowed, “Take your life,” to which Woodward replied, “Anything but your Physic.” But that is another story.

In an attempt to keep the bickering between Woodward and Sloane from escalating into violence, Sir Isaac Newton forced Sloane to publish a retraction, indicating he thought some of Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward’s plans to overthrow Sloane nonetheless continued apace. Woodward managed to get a friend, John Harris, elected secretary. He then proclaimed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby that:

Dr. Sloane declared at the next Meeting he would lay down…. He guesses right enough that the next step would be to set him aside.

Woodward and his faction were so confident by this point that he criticised Newton as incapable. Harris even invited Newton’s nemesis, Leibniz, to write for the Transactions. Perhaps Woodward’s ambition was becoming so great that he hoped to be Newton’s successor as President of the Royal Society–an honour that would fall to Sloane much later, in 1727.

The power struggle culminated when Sloane was presenting on bezoars to the Society. Woodward attacked Sloane’s thesis and Sloane, unable to come up with a reply, allegedly resorted to making faces at Woodward.  These grimaces were “very strange and surprising, and such as were enough to provide any ingenuous sensible man to a warmth.”

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
If only we knew what the grimace was… Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Council was convened to resolve this controversy once and for all. They debated whether Sloane had actually been making faces and whether Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward seemed on the brink of victory, but then lost his temper when Sloane denied the charges: “Speak sense, or English, and we shall understand you!” Woodward, unwilling to apologize was summarily kicked out. He then claimed that Sloane had packed the Council with his cronies, complaining to no avail of the “Mystery of Iniquity that reigns there.His friend Harris was soon enough replaced and so his entire revolution fell apart.

Although it may be more amusing to think of these eminent doctors as perpetually busy with childish bickering, they were capable of acting professionally on occasion. Even after this great controversy Woodward was willing to recommend  Sloane to a patient and attempted to enlist Sloane’s support to obtain a lucrative new position. Still, their showdown does appear to have put a bit of a damper on their correspondence, and it would seem that their relationship never entirely recovered.

As it happened, with Woodward gone, Sloane and Newton soon fell to sniping at one another. When Sloane was forced to resign as secretary in 1713, Woodward ended up on the side of Sloane against Newton, who Woodward now saw as an evil tyrant holding the Society back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

 

References

Benedict, Barbara. “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012).

Levine, Joseph. Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

MacGregor, Arthur. “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane,” Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. Ed. Arthur MacGregor. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

Lithograph by C.H. Bacle,  19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Storms, Sounds and Authorship

The wind has been wildly whipping the last few days, putting me on edge. It doesn’t help that the wind makes the neighbourhood noisier than usual: clanking gates, blowing cans… The normally distant rumble of the tube train suddenly passes right down our street, while the planes seem to fly right over our roof. The weather can do funny things to sound.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.
Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Back in 1708, William Derham was inspired by his observations on weather and sound to publish on the motion of sound in the Philosophical Transactions. Derham’s letters to Sloane show how Derham had carefully thought about the subject for years before his article appeared. Academic writers will have much sympathy for Derham’s path toward publication.

In January 1704/5, Derham was confident that he was “setteling the business of the Flight of Sounds, which may be of good use”. He had ten questions and was happy to add more if anyone in the Royal Society had any; by the time he published, there were nineteen questions. Derham was charting the sound of gunfire to determine what factors affected sound, such as the type of winds and weather, size of gun, time of day, and direction of the shot.

Many credible authorities, from the Florentine Academy to Isaac Newton, had differed on the question of “What Space Sounds fly in a Second or any determinate Time?” To settle the matter, Derham repeated their experiments and at greater distances. The answer seemed close:

I have allmost satisfied my self about all the former Enquiries, which when I have fully done I will impart it to the Society. I only want a few Guns from the Tower or some such large distance (which I could see in the Evening) to fully confirm what I have already done.

Derham was more guarded by April 1705. He reported that he was not as close to finishing his experiments as he’d hoped. Having met “with fresh matters” that nobody had ever observed before, he was “cautious of determining any thing precipitatly; & therefore I shall yet delay giving the Society an account of what I have done”.

Lithograph by C.H. Bacle,  19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A light-hearted picture, but I hasten to add that Derham did not use women’s skirts to test his theories on sound. Lithograph by C.H. Bacle, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

What he could tell them was that “Storms do accelerate Sounds, wch I did not discover (only suspect) till last Fryday” when he had been timing the sound of guns fired at Blackheath. Contrary winds resulted in delays, while high winds sped the sounds up. But to test his theory, he needed more guns. Derham reassured Sloane that he would “use my greatest care in all this matter” because his newest observations differed so greatly from those of others–and “perhaps the Societys reputation my be somewhat hurt by any neglect or want of an act”.

In December 1706, Derham was still working on the project. He had only just found “an excellent semi-circle to take the Angles, & thereby the distances of the places from whence I observed the Flight of Sounds”. This, he noted, “was the only thing that hath delayed the me from imparting my Observations on that subject.” And in April 1707, he referred in passing to using triangulation to measure sound.

Finally, Derham sent off his observations in February 1707/8. His letter hints at his relief, as well as his hope that the article would be published as soon as possible.

I have sent you my Observations about Sounds; which as it hath cost me some pains, so I hope will be acceptable to you, & the most illustrious Society. If you think it worth publishing in the Transactions, I desire you will be pleased to put it into one of the next.

A week later, Derham’s anxiety emerges more clearly when he wondered whether Sloane had even received the article: “Be pleased to let me know whether you recd my account of Sounds with my Packet of Lrs from Florence.”

The article was intended to be Derham’s Important Work (and it was), appearing as it did in Latin rather than the English he usually used for his Phil. Trans. submissions. It also took up a full thirty-three pages. With his careful measurements, increased distances, and use of instruments, Derham provided a more accurate assessment of the speed of sound than previous scholars.

It’s just a shame that Derham never mentioned his mysterious Japanese (?) co-author anywhere in his letters to Sloane…

According to a data entry howler error in the online Phil. Trans., Soni Motu was the first author on the article. How’s that for revisioning history?

Soni Moto

Asses suckling children. 
From: Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy
By: S.H. Sadler. Credit" Wellcome Library, London.

On Asses’ Milk

Donkey, from Buffon, Histoire naturelle des mineraux, 1749-1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Donkey, from Buffon, Histoire naturelle des mineraux, 1749-1804. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It’s not often that I have an a-ha moment when reading a Daily Fail article. And it chokes me to even admit that I had one on Boxing Day as I perused “Could DONKEY MILK be the elixir of life?”.

The Sloane Letters have several references to eighteenth-century patients drinking asses’ milk. It was never held up as an elixir of life, but was thought to be particularly useful in treating lung ailments (as with the Viscount Lymington in 1722), blood problems (in the case of Catherine Henley) and emotional troubles (the Duchess of Beaufort’s hysteria in 1705). But one thing that always intrigued me was the lengths to which patients would go to get asses’ milk; why, I wondered, did it seem like such a faff to find a lactating donkey?

In 1723, Robert Holdwsorth reported that Lady Middleton had provided his wife with a goat and an ass so she could drink milk, as per Hans Sloane’s prescription. Mrs Holdsworth had stopped drinking the milk, though, as it disagreed with her. (A common complaint!) On its own, this might just seem like an act of kindness on Lady Middleton’s part—but it was likely darned helpful for the Holdsworths to have a friend in high places who could help in finding an ass.

The Duke of Bedford, for example, wanted to drink asses’ milk in 1724, as Sloane had recommended for an eye problem. Unfortunately, the Duke had been unable to procure an ass in the country and had needed to send to Streatham (another family holding) for one. As the letter was sent from his seat at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Streatham is over fifty miles away in Surrey, the ass came from quite a distance.

Asses suckling children.  From: Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy By: S.H. Sadler. Credit" Wellcome Library, London.
Asses suckling children.
From: S.H. Sadler, Infant feeding by artificial means : a scientific and practical treatise on the dietetics of infancy, 1895.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

As Sally Osborn tells us at The Recipes Project, there are lots of eighteenth-century recipes for artificial asses’ milk. One version included snails boiled in milk with eringo root and brown sugar. Yum.

Donkey milk is good stuff, by several counts, being the closest in composition to human milk. Although early modern people wouldn’t have known these details, Sloane and other physicians prescribed it regularly and patients were often curious to try it. Mrs Reynolds wondered in 1725 whether Sloane might recommend that she try asses’ milk to help her general weakness. He did, as he scrawled “lact. asen.” on her letter.

It turns out that asses’ milk is still hard to get today. Across Europe, the average price is over £40 per litre. Female donkeys produce only a litre of milk per day for about half they ear and can only produce milk when its foal is nearby. Not the easiest of milk to acquire… The eighteenth-century demand, it seems, outstripped supply. No wonder patients struggled to find lactating asses and settled for unappealing substitutes!

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Inspired by the season, I started playing with my database of Hans Sloane’s correspondence to see how many items from The Twelve Days of Christmas to my wondering eyes should appear. Although some substitutions were required, all twelve days are represented—and, in turn, hint at the breadth of Sloane’s collections, medical practice and epistolary network.

Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Above, a partridge (perdix californica); below, a pigeon (columba cruenta). Engraving by Manceaux after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… an account of the King hunting partridge from 8 in the morning until four in the afternoon in August 1724. It is unspecified whether any partridge was also in a pear tree. In a stunning twist for the song, George was also hunting rabbits and the trip had to be cut short because of a storm. Safety—and partridges—first, everyone. In any case, the King and his party were very tired after such a long day.

For the second day of Christmas, I found no turtle doves, but there are pigeons. And they are just as good, maybe even better, since I’ve never heard of anyone eating dove. Thomas Hearne, in an undated letter, reported that he was coughing up blood and receiving medical help from the Duchess of Bedford. All he was able to eat was milk and pigeon. Not my usual choice of dinner, but to each one’s own.

For the third day of Christmas, I was unable to locate any foreign hens. There was, however, an odd pheasant hen sent by John Hadley in 1721. He thought that Sloane might enjoy dissecting the hen because her feathers had changed several years previously from the usual hen colours to that of a cockerel.

I hoped to find collie birds (blackbirds) or calling birds (song birds) for the fourth day of Christmas—and I found several of each in one letter! In 1721, Richard Richardson sent Sloane the eggs and nests of several types of birds, including larks, thrushes, crows and blackbirds. Thank you, Mr. Richardson for being so obliging.

Gold ring with container, supposedly--but unlikely--held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Gold ring with container, supposedly–but unlikely–held poison. Swiss; undated, possibly 16th or 17th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But what about five gold rings? I happily settled for one with a fancy, though indecipherable, inscription from Charles Preston in 1699. One ring to rule them all?

The geese, laying or otherwise, posed the greatest trouble. Goose does come up in the database, but only as a description. Mark Catesby in 1724 compared another bird specimen to a goose in size and Emelyn Tanner in 1727 described a deformed baby as having down like a goose.

The only swans mentioned in the letters are pubs, though the drinkers may or may not have been swimming in their drink. For example, Richard Richardson (1729) referred to a carrier from Preston who would be staying at the Swan in Lad Lane, London. Or Antony Picenini stayed at the Swan Tavern in Chelsea, hoping that a change of air would benefit him while he recovered from (unspecified) surgery on his thigh.

There were some maids mentioned in relation to milk, but only one maid doing any milking—in this case, drinking milk rather than fetching it. In 1725, Matthew Combe was treating Sophia Howe, Maid of Honour to Queen Caroline, for a bad cough. The patient had been drinking asses’ milk, commonly given to people suffering from chest troubles.

Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.
Akan drum owned by Sloane and acquired beyween 1710 and 1745. Made in West Africa and collected from Virginia. Credit: British Museum, London.

Although there were no drummers drumming, there is at least a drum. In 1729, Elizabeth Standish of Peterborough was planning to send Sloane “a Negro drum”. No other details were given, such as where the drum came from or how Mrs Standish had acquired it. Could this be the same Akan drum still held at the British Museum?

Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.
Travelling smoking set, Europe, 1815-1820. Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

There is only one reference to a piper actually piping. In 1723, Timothy Lovett reported that he had been treating his long-standing phlegmatic cough (forty years) by smoking a pipe: “I have used my selfe to smoking several years about 5 pipes a day but it is ready to make me short breathed. I find it opens and loosens ye body.” Smoking as a cure… it worked until it didn’t, apparently.

Now, the Lords and Ladies were apparently too dignified to mention their leaps and dances to Sloane, but the subject of their exercise does occasionally come up. I offer you one Lord, the Earl of Derby, and one Lady, Lady Clapham. Derby suffered from swelling and bad breathing in 1702. He was “most pusled what to do about exercise, which is so necessary, but the least causes my legs to swell so”. Lady Clapham was also ill in 1702 and her regular physician despaired of the elderly woman’s skin disorder, hard swellings all over her body. He wasn’t sure if “the cause of this disease may proceed from a great stomach & little exercise or a great surfeit of cherries in London”. Tough one…

St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth's "Noon", from Four Times of Day (1736).
St. Giles is in the background of Hogarth’s “Noon”, from Four Times of Day (1736).

Since I clumped Lords and Ladies together, I’ll end with an 1842 version of Twelve Days which has twelve bells ringing.  After Sloane was elected President of the Royal Society in 1727, the bell-ringers of St. Giles-in-the-Fields honoured him by ringing the bells. St. Giles only has eight bells today and, in 1727, would only have had four bells. But no matter, it’s the thought that counts and a four-bell honour is pretty darned fine!

And on that (ahem) note, I wish a Merry Christmas to all.