Those wacky women and the etiology of their silly poisoning symptoms
In 1864, epidemiology as we know it didn’t exist. For example, the word “epidemiology” barely existed. Merriam-Webster claims the word dates to circa 1860, and Random House says 1870-75. John Snow’s great work was only a decade earlier.
Whatever the terminology, the study of disease outbreaks was a long way from being a statistical discipline. The best evidence that something led to disease, whether infectious disease or some sort of poisoning, came from collections of anecdotes and case studies, like the two presented by William S. Barker, M.D. in the January/February 1864 issue of the St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal. This piece was reprinted in the Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal, volume VII (1864): 140-142, a journal which contains a lot of excerpts or “selections” from other publications. I don’t know if the original St. Louis journal has been digitized. The Pacific editors spotlighted these selections to publicize the return of the St. Louis journal, which had apparently been on a three-year hiatus.
The first case is G. W. E——–, a blue-collar worker who responds with “no” to all the doctor’s queries about whether he’s been ingesting arsenical food prepared by incompetent strangers, or patent medicines prepared by charlatans. The doctor thinks his symptoms look like poisoning rather than infection. It turns out that in his job casting molds at a foundry, he uses a lot of oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) to get sand out of the molds. Dr. Barker remembers that arsenic poisoning occurred in other people exposed to oil of vitriol, for example people who use it in the manufacture of hydrochloric acid. At this time H2SO4 was made from heating of iron pyrite which contained arsenic impurities. After being told to stop inhaling so much sulfuric acid, the patient recovers. Simple and straightforward.
He was quite ill for ten days, but recovered perfectly. I think the case worthy of notice, as the cause of the disease was at first obscure, yet so unequivocal when understood.
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In presenting the second case, Dr. Barker decides to lighten the mood, and gets all snarky, in a Jezebel.com kind of way. But he probably would not enjoy Jezebel.com, because his japes and quips are at the expense of “vain women” and women with intellectual pretensions. First, the poet Cowper is quoted for the purpose of establishing the fact that women use makeup. Then it is revealed that apparently some women seek to change their appearance not entirely to look winsome and nubile, but also in risible attempts to appear intelligent. This is accomplished by enhancing the height of one’s forehead, by physical or chemical hair removal.
I know nothing about this, but my guess is that this was a simple case of following fashion trends, as there were certainly several instances in history of an exaggerated high forehead being the goal of the fashionable women of high society. Presumably it was associated with intelligence. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say, as Barker does, that it’s an attempt to resemble men, men being synonymous with brainpower.
Such delicate carnal glories have no charm for them. They are women of self-presumed intellectual power; as nature has unquestionably given to man a preponderance of intellect, they would look like men “as far as in them lies.” But there are only a few females to whom nature has given a broad and lofty brow. “The dome of thought, the palace of the soul,” is a somewhat diminutive tenement. Broad shoulders and a stentorian voice will not avail the strong-minded female, if the hair grows low on the forehead.
Yes, of course. Women’s heads are smaller than men’s, and to compensate, they want their hairlines to recede.
So Dr. Barker had a patient who tried to elevate her forehead by hair removal. Much like Mr. G. W. E——–, he anonymizes her name in an objective way, to “Miss Ophelia McDunder”. And in her case, it was the dreaded patent-medicine man who convinced her to poison herself, with a three-part hair removal technique consisting of Spanish fly to raise blisters, a powder of arsenic, and wax to fix everything in place under a bandage. This would prevent hair from growing back post-shaving. After four days of application, she was very sick and called the doctor. After removing the plaster, “her convalescence was tedious”, which is a medical term meaning slow.
In the course of describing this, Dr. Barker goes on various flights of fancy using mock-elevated language and poetic allusions, the Simpsons references of their day.
- “the personal attractions of one of Eve’s fair daughters”
- “she has undergone a scientific metamorphosis”
- “perverse nature had renewed the growth”
- “she utters maledictions ‘not loud, but deep'”
The above case furnishes a warning to quacks who use depilatories, and silly women who would deform themselves with second-story foreheads.
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Volume VII of the Pacific Medical & Surgical Journal can be found in Google Books form here (starting with a handy index). Or search the web for “Miss Ophelia McDunder”. Or search for “vanity’s unwearied fingers”, since this paper is apparently the only case of that particular work of the poet Cowper being digitized or excerpted.
The all-male world of 19th-century medicine did not lead all its practitioners to adopt a condescending attitude. For a more respectful treatment of women being poisoned by cosmetics, see Lewis A. Sayre, M.D. (1869), Three cases of lead palsy from the use of a cosmetic called “Laird’s Bloom of Youth”: Transactions of the American Medical Association XX: 561-572. And that one is available here.