History from
the Bottom Up

Research Diversions

796px Derby Chemists shop 450x338 Research Diversions

By Roger from Derby, UK Preserved Chemists shop in Derby Silk Mill via Wikimedia

I have a new favorite publication. During my recent week of research in New York City, I spent many happy hours poring over nineteenth century copies of The British Medical Journal. I found it so diverting—literally—that it was difficult to stay focused on my area of research. It’s written in a very approachable, conversational style, well, for a medical journal—with lots of first-hand accounts from doctors about their ailing patients. And you find yourself filling in the human details between the lines.

For instance, in the correspondence section of the July 12, 1862 issue, there’s a lively dialogue between those in favor of sending people home with poisons in bottles marked with a “difference in shape and mode of pouring” and those who think it’s a dumb idea. Why sure, the first camp argues, it’s better to package the poison in a specially shaped bottle, so that when Mother sends seven-year-old Suzy to the corner store to collect a half pound of sugar for the trifle and a half pound of arsenic to kill the rats, Suzy will have a fighting chance not to get the two identical substances confused as she carries the packages home all jumbled up in her little white apron. The other camp thinks it’s the person’s own fault if he doesn’t bother to look carefully. As one Mr. Squire at the Pharmaceutical Society put it, “Such a person deserves to be poisoned.”

Then there’s the article entitled “Loss of an Eye from the Bite of a Leech” (May 31, 1862), where a doctor named Mr. Von Graefe (they weren’t called “Dr.” then) recounts that his patient, a five year old child, “had on account of headache been ordered a leech to the right temple.” The leech ended up crawling over to her eye, resulting in, well, just imagine. “Where were the parents?” I almost shouted. Why did no one realize the stupid leech had crawled to her eye? They don’t move that quickly! And why is Mr./Dr. Von Graefe publishing this story of his own ridiculous incompetence? These were the heady days before malpractice.

I could keep going and going. In the 6/14/1879 issue, a doctor describes how a guy purchased a doll for his one-year-old. The baby put the doll in her mouth and fell gravely ill. Turns out, the doll had a long green dress that was loaded with arsenic.

I’ll end with an article not from the BMJ but from my second-favorite publication, The Lancet (4/27/1861). A Mr. Skey recounts three patients of his, girls aged 15, 16, and 17, whom he treated for “enlarged bursae over the knee.” Touchingly, he dubs this malady “Housemaid’s Knee,” because it was “brought on by kneeling on a hard floor or stone steps whilst following their occupation as servants.” I think Mr. Skey might have been secretly hoping his name for this affliction might gain rapid popularity and perhaps accord him, in turn, some name recognition, but I don’t think the name stuck.

1024px Julien Dupré La Vache Blanche 1 450x337 Research Diversions

Julien Dupré La Vache Blanche

Update: As you’ll see in the comments, my English friend, Annabel, says that Housemaid’s Knee is still a familiar and recognized condition in the U.K. Perhaps Mr. Skey wasn’t even the originator of the name. I’ll have to go do some more research. Thanks, Annabel!!  

Top Ten Viking Nicknames

The subject of today’s hilarity will be nicknames from the Viking Age. (I did a post awhile back about some of my favorite royal nicknames.) As with most people living in medieval times, the Norse had no last names (surnames), outside of patronyms (Ander’s son, Peter’s son). So, as happened frequently in other medieval communities, nicknames were used as a way of identifying individuals. We’ve all heard of Eric the Red, but there are lots of better ones. The list below comes from the people … Read more

Analyze This

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.22.22 AM

I’m working on a new book right now, and as part of my research, I have enrolled in an online course on forensics. My professor is one Roderick Bates, an organic chemist and associate professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I find him delightful. Soft-spoken, with a pleasant British accent, he wears a white lab coat and safety glasses, and he delivers his lectures about heinous crimes involving wood chippers, analysis of body tissues found in chain saws, and body-dissolving sulphuric acid in bathtubs, with a charming exuberance and a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

 … Read more

My Geek Week

This week, Dear Reader, I won’t be posting, as I’m doing research for my next book. I’m staying in the empty apartment of a New York City friend and will be spending all my time here, at the New York Academy of Medicine:

And here, at the New York Public Library. Back next week!

Fashion Fail

Last month when I was in Paris my husband and I spotted a statue in a small park, and long before we were close enough to read the inscription I said, “That is so the 1830s.” Here’s the statue. In case you can’t see the inscription, the date is 1830.

Not that I should get mad props for ID-ing the fashion era. The period from 1830 to the early 1840s was marked by a very characteristic look in fashionable European and American circles. I loathe it.

 … Read more


Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Roman DictatorBibi Saint-Pol, own work

The first time I stumbled across a reference to the disease known as phthiriasis (pronounced “thuh-RY-uh-sis) I was reading Plutarch’s gleeful account of the death of the Roman tyrant Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 78 BC), who had a nasty habit of putting his enemies’ heads on pikes, died a relatively old man, having murdered all the people who might try to assassinate him. And yet, according to Plutarch, Sulla met a ghastly … Read more

Renaissance Road Trips

Chenonceau CastleOn a recent trip to France, we passed by many châteaux in the Loire valley, each more magnificent than the next. The Loire valley is not very close to Paris—it’s about 110 miles from Paris to Chateau de Chambord, for instance—and I wondered how long it took sixteenth century travelers to make this journey—and why there were so many castles.

First, the distance. Under the best of conditions (good roads, decent weather, level ground), humans can walk four miles per hour over long … Read more

Book Signing Event

Friday night I attended the annual summer book signing fundraiser, given by the Hotchkiss Library of Sharon, CT. It was a delightful evening, with a mix of authors who write for kids and for adults. I had the good luck to get seated at a table next to Jeff Cohen.

Jeff is a reporter at NPR. You’ve probably heard him on the radio—he often covers national stories–but you may also know him because of an interview he did with his own little daughters a few years ago, after five-year-old Sadie … Read more

Guest Post!

Today on the blog, please welcome my special guest: kidlit writer-friend, Jane Sutcliffe. Jane and I met through the New England chapter of SCBWI, and she is the author of over two dozen nonfiction books for kids, including the fantastic, recent picture book Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be (Charlesbridge). Her new book, The White House is Burning August 24, 1814, is slated for publication next week (August 5, 2014). Jane lives on a farm in Tolland, Connecticut, with her husband, … Read more

France, Part Trois

It’s Sunday and we’re at the airport, heading home. It’s been an amazing trip.

We left Lyon for Normandy on Wednesday. On the way, we stopped overnight in the Loire region and visited Chenonceaux, a Renaissance chateau that belonged to Catherine de Medici.Actually, it wasn’t hers originally. Catherine’s husband, Henri II, presented it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, which rankled Catherine to no end. After he was killed in a freakish jousting accident, Catherine wasted little time bunging Diane out of Chenonceaux. Catherine told Diane she would swap it for a different chateau, named Chaumont, … Read more

Page 1 of 10112345...102030...Last »