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Category Archives: Science

A Measure Of Things – Part Eight

Having looked at beer, it would only be appropriate to look at some of the measurements associated with wine. Perhaps it is no surprise that until 1826, a wine gallon was different from a beer or ale gallon. From at least the 16th century and by statute from 1707 a wine gallon was designated as 231 cubic inches or 3.7854 litres or about 6.66 imperial pints. This reflected the amount of liquid you could store in a cylinder six inches high and seven inches in diameter, if you allocate the approximate value of 22/7 to pi.

But there were variants. John Wybard, who conducted some experiments between 1645 and 1647, found that the wine gallon standard adopted at London’s Guildhall was 224 cubic inches while John Reynolds, a colleague of Wybard’s, found that the standard used at the Tower of London was 231 cubic inches. These variations not only caused confusion but meant that as the tax man based their excise calculations on the 231 standard, those who used the other measures were either overpaying or underpaying tax. To sort out the mess, an Act of Parliament in 1707 imposed the 231 standard. In 1826 the imperial gallon was adopted as the measure for the wine gallon.

We’ve met the Single Bottle Act of 1861 before but this had a transformational effect on the consumption of wine. It meant, for the payment of a licence fee, retailers could sell wine for drinking off their premises. The principal means for conveying the vino from the offie to the home was a bottle, a glass one at that. Before then, wine was stored in casks and barrels and these came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes.

The largest was a tun which held 252 wine gallons. However, the standard seems to have been a bit fluid because there is a list of custom duties dating to 1508 which equates a tun to sixty sesters, a sester being four gallons. Whether 252 or 240 wine gallons, the tun was the measure against which the other, smaller sizes were compared. When the imperial gallon was adopted, a tun was 210 gallons.

A pipe or a butt was half a tun in volume. Perhaps the most famous butt was that in which the Duke of Clarence was supposed to have been drowned on 18th February 1478. Although there is no incontrovertible evidence that this was the way poor old George was assassinated, it makes for a good story. A puncheon held a third of a tun and possibly was so called because the barrel was marked with a punch to denote its contents. A puncheon had an alternative name, tertian, which clearly denotes that its volume was a third of a tun.

A hogshead of wine was the next size down and that denoted a volume equal to half of a butt or a quarter of a tun. A tierce held half a puncheon or a third of a butt or a sixth of a tun. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the term was first used in printed English to denote a measurement of volume in 1531. The poet and playwright, Ben Johnson, in his role as poet laureate, successfully negotiated a pay rise in 1630. Part of the enhanced pay and benefits package was an annual tierce of Canary wine, doubtless to aid inspiration. This not inconsiderable perquisite went with the position until the disastrous appointment of Henry James Pye in 1790 – his verse could have done with the benefit of copious quantities of alcohol.

To complete the set, a wine barrel was half a hogshead or an eighth of a tun or 26.25 gallons and rundlet a seventh of a butt or a fourteenth of a tun.

I think I will just stick with a bottle for the time being.

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Eight

Dennis Dupuis and Radol

A few months ago I found a lump on my neck and decided to get it checked out. Fortunately it turned out to be benign but a century or so ago I may have been interested in a nostrum plugged heavily by a Dr Rupert Wells from St Louis – his real name was Dennis Dupuis. The adverts offered hope to those who had contracted any form of cancer. A typical example was this advert from 1907; “I have discovered a new and seemingly unfailing remedy for the deadly cancer. I have made some most astonishing cures. I believe every person with cancer should know of this marvellous medicine and its wonderful cures, and I will be glad to give full information to those who write me and tell me about their case”.

The symptoms that the respondent described would always convince Wells that they had a form of cancer or consumption, if they responded to the consumption advert. They would receive a standard letter which was so designed that all the ingenious Wells had to do, as well as fill in the date and name and address of the would-be victim, was to enter the location of the body where the cancer was located. The letter boasted of Wells’ credentials – he had carried out investigations into radium-administration at the college where he was a professor, hogwash all – and claimed that he was able to cure consumption and cancer through the internal and external application of Radol, a proprietary brand containing radium in fluid form. It went on to claim he had effected many cures and, of course, contained testimonials of some grateful recipients of this wonder cure.

For ten dollars you would receive a nice bell-shaped, blue-coloured bottle, standing ten inches tall with a four and a half inch diameter. The label affixed to it claimed “This bottle contains Radol, a radium impregnated fluid, prepared according to the formula and under the supervision of Dr. Rupert Wells. St. Louis MO. This fluid is not expected to retain its radio activity beyond 40 days from the date of this label.” To add extra authenticity the label would then detail the name and address of the customer and directions for use which were basically to take a tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed time. This was followed by the name and address of the customer, directions for use e.g. “take one tablespoon in a wineglass of water before each meal and at bed-time.

Radol was only available by mail and for a while, though, Wells was on to a good thing, In 1908 he shipped out some 7,800 bottles at ten dollars a time. But what was in it and was it any good? Wells claimed that the bluish fluorescent glow of the liquid was down to the radium contained it. But tests carried out by Lederle Laboratories showed that it was a mix of quinine sulphate and alcohol, a combination which would also produce a bluish glow. As the exposer of quackery, Samuel Adams, wrote in his The Great American Fraud, “Radol contains exactly as much radium as dishwater and is about as efficacious in cancer or consumption.

Following this revelation Wells was put out of business in 1910 when the US Mail refused to handle his packages.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Four

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906)

Science in general and physics in particular, whilst fascinating, has always been a closed book to me. Thank goodness there have been cleverer people than I who have made a significant contribution to the understanding of how the universe works like the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Austrian born Ludwig Boltzmann.

Take entropy or the degree of disorder and uncertainty in a system. I have always thought that tidying up was a bit of a waste of time and now I have the scientific evidence to back up my empirical observation. If I’m prevailed upon to tidy up a pile of clothing, have I contributed to a decrease in disorder and a corresponding reduction in entropy? Not a bit of it. You see, there are side effects to my attempt to restore order to my unruly pile of glad rags. I will be breathing, probably cursing, metabolising and warming my surroundings. When everything is totted up, the total disorder measured by entropy will have increased.

Boltzmann’s contribution to the corpus of scientific knowledge was to apply statistical techniques to understanding the second law of thermodynamics, first articulated by the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824, that stated that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. He was an atomist and believed that these tricky little devils held the key to the understanding of entropy. By blending the laws of mechanics as applied to the motion of atoms with probability theory, he concluded that the second law of thermodynamics was essentially a statistical law. The formula he derived to describe entropy in 1877 was S = k · log W. Clear as mud to me but it became the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Our hero didn’t finish there. Between 1880 and 1883 he continued to develop his statistical approach to explaining the mysteries of the universe and refined a theory to explain friction and diffusion in gases. In the late 1880s, following Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, Boltzmann devised a number of experiments to demonstrate radio waves, lecturing on the subject.

Impressive as this all is, Boltzmann did not find favour with his colleagues. Atomism, which is the bedrock of modern-day physics was under attack at the time and Boltzmann’s theory that entropy was irreversible was counter to prevailing thought at the time. After all, the equations of Newtonian mechanics are reversible over time and the great Poincare had demonstrated that a mechanical system in a given state will always return to the state over time.

One of Boltzmann’s leading critics was Wilhelm Ostwald who paid no heed to atoms, preferring to explain physical science purely in terms of energy conditions. Ostwald put the energist case against Boltzmann succinctly, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.” Scientific discussions at the time were lively affairs, one contemporary describing a debate between Boltzmann and Ostwald as resembling “the battle of the bull with a supple fighter”.

The constant criticism of his theories and the need to defend himself vigorously against all-comers wore Boltzmann down. Whilst on holiday with his wife and daughter at the Bay of Duino near Trieste in 1906, he committed suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, shortly after his death discoveries in atomic physics such as the Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics – reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.

For this, Ludwig, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

A Measure Of Things – Part Seven

As a regular drinker, I have a mild fascination with the size and measurements associated with alcoholic beverages. I still get into a firkin muddle with them and so to get some clarity (or should that be clarety?) on the subject, I will spend a bit of time explaining the many archaic terms and measurements.

Let’s start with the gallon. In 1884 the British or Imperial gallon was standardised as the equivalent of ten pounds of water at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. This amounts to eight pints and there are four (surprise, surprise) quarts in a gallon, two pints in a quart and twenty fluid ounces in a pint. It wasn’t ever thus and there was a bewildering variety of standards for the gallon. The Winchester or corn gallon was 157 fluid ounces while the Old English Ale gallon was 162 fluid ounces. The Queen Anne Wine gallon was 133 fluid ounces while the Irish gallon was a measly 125 fluid ounces. You can see why they decided to standardise the measure. The question is why it took them so long.

The firkin takes its name from the Middle Dutch word vierdekijn which means a fourth or a quarter and this gives a clue to its size. When used in the context of beer or ale, it denotes a quarter of a barrel. But it was not until 1824 that the amount of beer represented by an imperial beer or ale firkin was standardised. It represented 9 imperial gallons or 72 pints and most pubs to this day buy their beers in this quantity. From around the mid 15th century an ale firkin was 8 gallons, moving up to 8.5 gallons in 1688 and settling at 9 gallons in 1803. The beer firkin was always 9 gallons until the adoption of the imperial gallon measurement.

Then we come to the pin or polypin. Real ale aficionados who are holding a party and are reluctant to settle for the modern-day equivalent of the Watney’s Red Barrel Party Seven – what fun we had trying to open those blighters in the seventies – will go to their local brewers or offie to secure a polypin of their favourite hooch. This is the equivalent in volume to half a firkin or 4.5 gallons or 36 pints – enough to lubricate the whistle.

The next measure we need to get our heads around is the kilderkin and this rather strange word again owes its origin to the Dutch. It means a small cask and in volume a kilderkin is the equivalent of two firkins or half a barrel – in other words, 144 pints. Until the adoption of the imperial measures, ale kilderkins and beer kilderkins reflected the differences in the quantity measured by their respective firkins. Beer festival organisers tend to order their stock in kilderkins in an attempt to ensure there is enough to go round. They often fail miserably in my experience.

The daddy of the beer measures is the barrel which, as you might have worked out by now, equates to 36 imperial gallons or 288 pints. To complete the set we have a tun which is the equivalent of six barrels or 216 imperial gallons, the butt which is half a tun and the hogshead which equates to a quarter of a tun or one and a half barrels or three kilderkins.

Phew! After all that it is surely time for a pint.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty One

What happens when three Christs meet?

For a confirmed agnostic the world of religion is a confusing and mystifying place. There are so many faiths competing for our attention that the obvious question is how do you know you are backing the right horse. Of course, there is just the chance that there is an omnipotent being up there who has control over your immortal soul and being a cautious sort of chap, I don’t want to find that out when it is too late to mend the errors of my ways. I have a fond image of representatives of all the major religions crowding around my death-bed intoning their own versions of their creed simultaneously, rather like a DJ sound system clash in a reggae club in the late 70s.

The bedrock of the Christian faith is monotheism – one God, one Jesus etc. Over the last millennium or so groups have formed eagerly anticipating the second coming of Christ, all to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as we know. From time to time some deluded soul pops up claiming to be the reincarnation of Christ. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is what would happen if two or more so-called Christs met each other. Fortunately, we have a clue from a rather bizarre experiment conducted by psychologist, Milton Rokeach, in 1959.

The starting point is to gather a number of schizophrenics who think they are Christ. Rokeach got his hands on three, Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel and Leon Gabor, and forced them to live together at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. As for methodology, he chose to replicate the apparently successful technique adopted several years earlier where two women who believed they were both the Virgin Mary were put together and one of them as a result of them chatting together realised the extent of her delusional behaviour, was cured and discharged. But men, it would seem, are made of sterner stuff.

As you might expect, when they first met each other, the three Christs argued as to who was the real deal. Arguments became heated and on occasions, instead of a cheek being turned, blows were traded. Over time, though, the three patients began to tolerate each other and to prefer each other’s company. Each developed an elaborate explanation as to why the others were not the real McCoy. Clyde believed that his companions were dead and that they had been taken over by robots, whereas Leon and Joseph thought that their comrades were either crazy or had been duped. Leon came nearest to the truth by recognising that they were in a mental institution so the others, although, interestingly, not he, must be crazy. Rokeach tried to manipulate Leon’s behaviour by taking over the character of his imagined wife – an episode which caused Leon great emotional distress.

Rokeach abandoned the experiment in 1961 without curing the patients of their delusions or even getting any useful insights into the nature of schizophrenia. Towards the end of the experiment, none of the men showed the remotest interest in resolving the question as to who was the real Christ and, in fact, would go out of their way to avoid any conversational topic which might have strayed, however inadvertently, into matters religious. Anything for a quiet life!

The person who displayed the most delusional behavioural characteristics was Rokeach himself who seemed to relish playing the role of God in trying to manipulate his patients’ behaviour. Over time he realised how unethical his experiment was and in his 1981 edition of his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, he wrote, “while I failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives”.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Fifty Seven

Magic Foot Drafts

As old age approaches, the incidence of aches and pains, a bit of arthritis here and a touch of rheumatism there blight my daily life. Stoically, I grin and bear it and usually the niggle will disappear as quickly as it came. For those who are afflicted with more prolonged bouts of rheumatism, the prospect of a panacea that will restore harmony to your body must be appealing. Naturally, there was a ready supply of quacks and chancers ready to prey on the gullible.

The Magic Foot Draft Company, operating from Jackson in Michigan, were actively promoting in the early years of the 20th century a cure for rheumatism in the feet. Their modus operandi is now painfully familiar – extensive advertising extolling the benefits of their product and a money back guarantee. “Don’t take medicine but try Magic Foot Drafts, the great Michigan external remedy which is curing thousands,” the advert, featuring its corresponding secretary, Frederick Dyer, screamed. Reading on, whatever form of rheumatism wherever situated “all yield quickly to those wonderful Drafts which have brought comfort to hundreds of thousands” – note the rapid increase in numbers from the headline – “including cases of thirty or forty years’ standing” (or not, if you had trouble with your feet). “They are curing where doctors and baths and medicines fail.

What they were, these miraculous drafts, were plaster strips which were made out of oilcloth and coated with pine-tar. These you applied to the soles of your feet and they were supposed to draw out the uric acid. To avail yourself of these plasters all you had to do was to send your name and address and you would receive a pair of drafts to the value of $1. If you were satisfied with the results, all you then had to do “was send us one dollar. If not, keep your money. We take your word and trust you for a square deal.

Presumably, they anticipated that most would persevere with the drafts and send for more with their all-important cheque. If you didn’t communicate with them, you were on their mailing list and they would soon follow up with a chaser. Some may have just then paid their dollar and put the whole thing down to experience. For those who were not sure that the drafts were working, the follow-up letter would explain that complicated cases or the incorrect application of the plaster would not yield overnight results. Some chronic cases may require up to six applications.

The letter also warned against the patient becoming impatient or giving up too easily and just to reinforce the impression of its efficacy, would include glowing testimonials. The letter would end with a hint of menace, “Unless you have already sent your order we shall expect a letter from you very soon, and there will be no failure to send the treatment just as you instruct, so you will have it and keep your recovery going steadily on day and night until every last twinge of pain has left you. Many would have paid their money for a quiet life.

And did they work? According to Samuel Hopkins Adam in his 1905 expose of the patent medicine business entitled the Great American Fraud, “they [their feet] might as well be affixed to the barn door, so far as any uric acid extraction is concerned.” I guess not, then.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Three

Catherine Hettinger (1954 – present)

One of the challenges for an old fogey like me is to keep up with current trends. I’m told that a craze which has swept through the playgrounds this year is something called the fidget spinner. For those who are not in the know it consists of a central circular pad, which the user holds, and two or three prongs, each holing a metal or ceramic bearing. The object of the exercise, is such a rudimentary process can be so described, is to rotate it between your fingers. Apparently users enjoy a pleasant sensory experience. For those looking for more excitement you can toss or twirl the spinner or transfer it between fingers. What fun!

Proponents of the gadget claim that it helps relieve stress and is aimed at those children who suffer from ADHD, another of those conditions which seem to have sprung up since I was a child. It certainly seems to appeal to those who surfeit of energy is in inverse proportion to their concentration span. With the fidget spinner hailed as the toy of 2017 and flying off the shelves in their millions, you would think that the person who came up with the original concept would have unlocked the door to untold riches. But this is where the latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame, Florida based Catherine Hettinger, comes in.

In the 1990s, Hettinger was suffering from myasthenia gravis which causes your muscles to weaken. Desperate to keep her young daughter amused, she came up with a toy which consisted of a circular device moulded from a single piece of plastic which could be spun on the fingertip. In 1993 Hettinger applied for and in 1997 was awarded a patent for her device, described as a spinning toy. She toured around some of the arts and crafts fairs in Florida and sold enough to break even, improving on the design as she went along.

In search of her big break, our heroine approached toy manufacturing giant, Hasbro, who tested the design. Alas for Catherine, they decided not to put into production. One of the problems with patents, as we have seen on numerous occasions, is that you need to renew them and this involves the periodic payment of a fee, $400 a time. Hettinger allowed the patent on her device to lapse in 2005.

In late 2016, eleven or so years after the patent lapsed, the Fidget Spinner began to make waves amongst the junior members of society and manufacturers of the toy started making bundles of money. Again, as we have seen, one of the ways that corporations can evade paying inventors their due is by making subtle changes to the design. Although the current crop of Fidget Spinners are spun using your fingertips, they rely on a completely different movement mechanism from Hettinger’s prototype.

Worse still for Hettinger, even if she had renewed her patent, it would have expired in 2014, seventeen years after it had been granted. This is the way that patents work, ostensibly giving an inventor enough time to capitalise on their genius without granting them a perpetual monopoly. You can’t help thinking that the toy manufacturers waited until any vestige of patent right had disappeared before launching the Fidget Spinner commercially.

It is a moot point as to whether Hettinger would have had any entitlement to cash in. At the very least, she came up with the basic concept but was unable to cash in on her brainwave. For this she is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

A Measure Of Things – Part Six

The Googol

What is the largest number you can think of? The ancient Greeks, who on the whole were pretty clever chaps, constructed a numbering system which had a myriad myriad as its largest descriptor of quantity. A myriad was ten thousand and so ten thousand ten thousands or a hundred million to you and I was quite enough to be going on with.

As Homo sapiens became increasingly aware of the immensity of the universe in which he was just the teeniest speck and as computing power allowed him to perform even more abstruse calculations at the click or two of a button, the search was on for descriptors of even bigger numbers. And so we have millions, billions and trillions. With numbers greater than a thousand million, there is the opportunity for confusion because some countries – continental Europe and Spanish and French-speaking countries – use the long scale where the next new term is a million times greater than the previous. However, the Americans, and the Brits since 1974, use the short scale where every term greater than a million is a thousand times greater than the previous. A French billion is considerably bigger than a British one. Confusing, eh?

Although these terms may have been sufficient to describe most numbers that we encounter, they were not enough for theoretical mathematicians. The American mathematician, Edward Kasner, conceived of a number which consisted of 1 and a hundred zeroes. He was searching for a name for it and during a walk with his nephew, Milton Sirotta, in the New Jersey Palisades, the nine-year old suggested the term googol. The youngster was not finished there. He conceived of another number, still finite, which consisted of a 1 and as many zeroes as you could write before you got tired. This he called a googolplex.

In 1940 Kasner co-authored a book with James Newman called Mathematics and the Imagination in which he introduced the terms googol and googolplex to the unsuspecting world. By that time the googolplex had changed from its very imprecise definition – after all, some people tired more quickly than others – to 10 to the power of googol or in decimal notation a 1 followed by a googol of zeroes. For a person to write a googolplex down it would take longer than the accepted age of the universe and a bloody big piece of paper.

Although as a symbol of quantity they have very limited application, the terms have made their mark on modern life. Larry Page and Sergey Brin named their company which was developing a search engine for the world wide web after a misspelling of googol – yes, Google – and their headquarters in California was called Googolplex.

And then there was the coughing major. In more innocent times the nation was enthralled by the odious Chris Tarrant and his show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – they seem long and distant times. The major, Charles Ingram, was one of the few contestants to win the top prize of a million smackers. His m.o was to repeat the multiple options slowly as if he was pondering his options but the allegations, which surfaced after the show, was that he had an accomplice in the audience who would cough when he mentioned the correct answer. Ingram and his accomplices were charged with fraud and received suspended sentences and hefty fines. Ingram was stripped of his army rank, although they all protested their innocence.

And the million pound prize? “A number one followed by a hundred zeroes is known as what? As any fule kno, it is a googol.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty

Why do shoe laces keep coming undone?

When I was a small boy one of the rites of passage was to be able to demonstrate the ability to tie up one’s own shoe laces. It was a tricky business and required great perseverance and phenomenal powers of concentration. Eventually I cracked it and have never looked back since. These days, with Velcro fastenings and the penchant for wearing trainers without laces it is less of a vital accomplishment and, I’m sure, we will all be the poorer for that.

When you think about it, though, and I have the luxury of being able to, tying shoe laces is a rather odd and inefficient way of making sure that your shoes stay on your feet. Invariably, the laces work loose and at some point in the day you find that you have to bend down and tie them up again. I find round laces the worst and when I buy a pair of shoes, try to avoid them. For the enquiring mind the obvious question is why do shoe laces, however well tied, work loose of their own accord.

Fortunately, some research carried out by Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California Berkley and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society may provide the clue to understanding this conundrum. As often is the case, the starting point was to take a couple of PhD students who were rich and uncool enough to own a pair of lace ups. They were asked to sit on a chair and swing their legs and stamp their feet. What they found was that these tow actions independently do not cause the laces to loosen. However, it is when you combine these two actions that trouble begins.

A runner was put on a treadmill and their actions were filmed using a slow-motion camera. What the scientists found was that when running, the foot strikes the ground with a force that is seven times that of gravity. As the fabric of the shoe squashes down on impact with terra firma, extra lace is freed at the top of the shoe, causing the knot to loosen imperceptibly. The trailing leg causes the free ends of the laces to move backwards and forwards, resulting in them being tugged outwards. The knot loosens causing a reduction in the friction which is holding the knot in place and eventually the free ends lengthen and the knot unravels.

It doesn’t happen all the time, the scientists say, but once the tension holding the knot decreases as a result of the movement of your feet, you will soon be bending down to tie your laces up again. It seems that some types of knot are more prone to coming undone than others. I use a granny knot but the tests conducted by O’Reilly show that these knots are five times more likely to come undone than a square knot. With a square knot you cross the end that is in your right hand behind the one in your left rather than passing the ends of the bow and knot over each other.

I doubt whether I will be able to obliterate a process that has been hardwired into my subconscious for over half a century. I find double knots help immeasurably but at least I now know why my shoe laces come undone. Perhaps I should invest in some slip ons.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Two

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 – 1865)

Sometimes you discover something and can’t persuade the powers that be that you have made a major breakthrough. This was the fate that befell the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the Hungarian obstetrician, Ignaz Semmelweis.

Our hero studied Law at the University of Vienna in 1837 but switched to medicine the following year and after gaining his doctorate in 1844, decided to specialise in obstetrics. He took up his first appointment in 1846 as an assistant in the Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward. There were two wards, A which was the preserve of doctors and trainees, and B which was staffed by midwives only. In the mid 19th century giving birth was a precarious business, often proving fatal to either the mother or the baby or, in some cases, both.

Clinic A had a phenomenally high mortality rate – about 10%, mainly as a result of puerperal fever, whereas the mortality rate in Clinic B was a still shocking but lower 2%. Women who came to the hospital – they were mainly from the lower classes – tried as best they could to avoid Clinic A because of its fearsome reputation. Many preferred to give birth in the streets where the mortality rate was considerably lower. Why was that, Semmelweis wondered?

The duties of the doctors at the hospital were many and varied. They would routinely examine diseased corpses in the mortuary, carrying out autopsies to determine cause of death or dissections to further their knowledge of the human anatomy, before moving on to the maternity ward. Whilst we now tend to regard, or at least hope, that medics are as close to the Platonic paradigm of cleanliness but in Semmelweiss’ time it was rare for a medic to wash their hands between dealing with patients. He noted the discrepancy between mortality rates where doctors were involved and where midwives, who did not handle dead bodies, were in attendance and concluded that some form of cadaverous material picked up from the stiffs was contributing to the high incidence of puerperal fever.

Acting upon these observations and hypotheses, Ignaz decided that he and his colleagues should was their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime, principally to remove the whiff of putrefying flesh, after handling dead bodies. The results were astonishing with fatality rates plummeting and after the experiment had been carried out for a while, deaths were a thing of the past. Concluding that he was on to something, although he could not provide a rational explanation as to why it worked as he knew nothing about germs, Semmelweiss began to promulgate his views. This led to great outburst of hand-wringing but not hand-washing amongst the medical profession, many of whom were outraged by the suggestion that their hands could be unclean. They were gentlemen, after all.

In revolutionary Vienna, Semmelweiss was seen as a trouble maker and was soon dismissed from his post. Surprise, surprise, the abandonment of the hand washing policy saw mortality rates rise to their pre-Ignatian levels. Frustrated, Semmelweiss wrote increasingly furious letters and articles to the medical community, accusing them of cold-hearted murder. Accounts of his discovery were printed in journals such as the Lancet. Semmelweiss repeated his successes whilst working in hospitals in Budapest in the 1850s and in 1861 published his theory and statistical demonstrations in a book called The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. It was not well received.

Worse still, he became an obsessive on the subject at a time when he started to develop signs of the onset of what might have been Alzheimer’s. Even his wife thought he was verging on insanity and in 1865 he was lured into a mental asylum in Vienna . Realising he had been trapped, Semmelweiss tried to make good his escape, but was detained, put in a straightjacket and given a good hiding by the warders for good measure. Two weeks later he died from his injuries which had gone gangrenous.

It was only when Louis Pasteur was able to provide a theoretical explanation of the causal link between germs and disease that Semmelweiss began to be regarded as the genius that he was and was able to claim his place as a pioneer of antiseptic policy. For this, Ignaz, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link