Found Poetry in 18th-Century Medical Discourse
These poems are comprised of material found during my research on medical literature, health guides, and newspapers dating from approximately 1680-1776. This period marked the beginning of modernity in scientific and medical thought, though as the following material illustrates, the transition into modernity was a blurry one. While scientists and practitioners were developing an understanding of anatomy, there was still much debate about and investigation into how the body specifically functioned, what caused disease, and what courses of treatment may act as cures for afflictions.
This work is part of a growing poetry collection of mine that aims to illuminate various modes of thought about the body and illness during this period, and also to examine relationships among patients, doctors, laypeople, and consumers. The language in much of the material I encountered communicated not only information about how people thought about disease and the body, but also how positions of authority and social hierarchies are heightened or challenged when illness and injury come into play. This material reflects cultural anxieties regarding mortality and identity that I believe will resonate still with a contemporary audience.
I have included publication information for the source material at the beginning of each poem. I have cut and scored the material on the page, but all material is from historical writing I have researched.
From The Complete Midwife’s Practice Enlarged (1680). Sir Theodore Mayern, Dr Chamberlain, Mr Nich Culpeper. And others of Foreign Nations.
Knowing what an ill Husband she had, that he had given her a blow upon the belly with his foot.
Part of her guts hung down-ups the share-bone like the bag of a Bag-pipe.
The Womb jutted out, so when the time came the Infant had not liberty to turn it self.
The Midwife, seeing she could not have the Child without losing the Woman was feign to make use of the Chirgurgeon.
He, giving her a wrap of cloth to place around the stomach, said never to rise without this, whether big or not.
She did, and still does, and bears as fine Children and lyes in as well as any other Woman.
From Medical Observations and Inquiries, Vol. I (1758). Case I. An Account of a Woman who was cured of a spasmodic Contraction of the Lower Jaw, commonly called a Locked Jaw, occasioned by the Laceration of the Tendon of one of her Fingers. By Dr J Silvester, FRS in White-Lion Court, Cornhill.
As I found the opium had none but the most desirable effects, I ordered 3 grains of the extract
three times a day.
When finding the spasms were rather kept under than cured,
that the jaw remained almost equally locked,
I desired to take off the whole finger: as part of the bone
was grown bare, skin and tendons drawn back
all I was doing was scarce anything, more than palliating the symptoms, unless the cause was removed.
The next day she began to mend. It is remarkable in this case,
though the patient was not used to take opium,
she took it in so great a dose without any bad effect.
On the contrary, it cleared her head,
made her spirits greatly better.
Case IX. An Account of a Worm Bred in the Liver, communicated in a Letter to Dr John Clephane, by Dr Thomas Bond.
Dear Dr Clephane,
After 9 or 10 months Mrs Holt thought there was something alive in her side for (to use her own expression) she said she plainly perceived
a tickling and quirling in it.
She voided the fore part of an annular worm 9 inches long.
In six hours more, the tail and other parts of the body, amounting to 20 inches in length. It was of a red colour, filled with blood in the manner of a leach.
After the worm left, Mrs Holt complained the stomach was fallen down and seemed
She entirely lost the power of deglutition;
so that she did not survive 48 hours.
Yours, Dr Thomas Bond
Dear Dr Bond,
Thank you for writing to me in regard to this case. Have you any further information of the creature Mrs Holt voided before she died?
This unhappy gentlewoman was for many months before her death fully convinced of there being something extraordinary in her case. She insisted
on having her body opened, which was accordingly done
by Doctors Kearsly Senior, Shippen, Phineas Fond, and myself
in the presence of many of her friends.
- the liver inlarged, harder than common, and forced over to the left side - the gall bladder distended with bile to the size
of a goose-egg
- the surface of the liver jagged and uneven as if it had been gnawed
- a large cavity, under the ribs, containing two quarts of bloody water
There seems little doubt this horrid animal had its seat in the cavity we found in the liver; that it worked its way from thence into the stomach before it was voided.
We may reasonably conjecture that when very small it was taken
into the stomach, entered the biliary ducts, formed its bed
and was nourished by sucking the blood,
until the morbid state of the juices made its situation improper.
It returned through the same passages that had given it admittance.
I think this worm may justly be called an hepatic leach. Worms
of considerable size have been found in most parts of the human body,
the same species usually in the same places. Many of them remain till it is too late
Holly Luhning grew up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan. She has written a poetry collection (Sway, Thistledown Press), a novel (Quiver, HarperCollins Canada and Pegasus US), and two poetry chapbooks: Plush, with JackPine Press and Pharmacoi; a Mechanical Account of Poisons in many Essays with Contraband Press. Luhning also occasionally contributes non-fiction essays to The London Magazine. She graduated with a PhD in 18th-century studies, specializing in print culture and theories of the body, and now teaches creative writing at the University of Surrey in England. She lives in London.