Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Nine


The vomit-drinking doctor, Stubbins Ffirth (1784 – 1820)

One of the problems of having an enquiring mind and natural curiosity is that at times you have to temper it. The risk is that your passion becomes all-consuming and it takes you down routes that most sane people would not contemplate. The advance of science and human knowledge requires researchers with undaunted courage and perseverance. But some can take it too far as the curious tale of an American doctor, Stubbins Ffirth, shows.

Yellow fever was a major problem in the United States in the late 18th century – an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 had killed several thousand people – and understanding the disease and, more importantly, finding a cure for it was the number one priority. The popular theory around at the time was that the disease was spread by what was known at the time as miasma or bad air. Ffirth was having none of it. The bee in his bonnet – or perhaps it should be mosquito as the cause of yellow fever was eventually attributed to the pesky insect in 1900 – was to prove his theory that the fever was not contagious and he went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the veracity of his thesis.

As with most scientists, the starting point was to experiment on animals. Ffirth’s first experiment involved some black vomit collected from some poor yellow fever patients, some bread and a small dog. The latter was confined to a room and fed bread soaked in the vomit. Alas for the scientist but, perhaps fortunately for the dog, it took a shine to the unusual repast and after three days became so fond of it that it would eat the vomit without the accompanying bread. Abandoning that experiment, Ffirth injected vomit into the jugular veins of assorted dogs and cats. The results were inconclusive – one dog died within ten minutes while others remained perfectly healthy.

Undaunted, Ffirth decided that the only thing for it was to dispense with the lower orders of the animal kingdom and experiment on Homo sapiens – and who better than himself? He wrote of his first experiment, “On October 4th 1802 I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit…a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily”. He injected the vomit of yellow fever patients into various parts of his body with no real effect.

Thinking he was really on to something he devised even more extreme experiments, including frying three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaling the steam and sitting in a small, enclosed closet inhaling six ounces of steaming vomit. Still no real effect. So the next stage in the experiments was to “take half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it”. The concoction tasted slightly acidic but it neither caused nausea or pain. Undaunted, he pressed on drinking several doses of vomit, often undiluted. But still there was no effect.

The lengths that Ffirth had gone to convinced him that his thesis was correct. His inability to contract the disease even after ingesting copious amounts of body fluids from fever patients was proof enough. He published his findings in A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an attempt to prove its non-contagious non-malignant Nature in 1804. But he was wrong. It was also subsequently demonstrated that the vomit and other bodily fluids he ingested were from victims who had passed their contagious state. Who’d have thought that? Instead of being a medical, great Ffirth had to make do with being known as the vomit-drinking doctor.

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

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Five


Jack Be Nimble

This is a short rhyme which first appeared in the 1815 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland and goes as follows, “Jack be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack jumped over/ A candlestick”. It is occasionally followed by a second verse, “Jack jumped high/ Jack jumped low/ Jack jumped over/ and burned his toe”. I suppose it served him right for dicing with danger by jumping over a naked flame.

We have seen in other rhymes that Jack is used as a generic description for a boy or a man and there is no reason to suppose that the usage here is any different. But there are those who are determined to attribute this rather simple and charming rhyme to something or someone of historical import. Our first suspect is Calico Jack Rackham, a pirate who operated in the Caribbean until his eventual capture and execution in 1720. His principal claims to fame were the natty design that he employed on his flag – white skull and cross bones on a black background – and the fact that two of his crew were female, Anne Bonny and Mary reed. They both escaped dancing the hemp jig because they were with child. Whilst he was obviously a picaresque character there is no reason to suppose that he is the Jack of our rhyme. His only nimbleness was his evasion of the long arm of the law for some time.

The next suspect is the dread disease, yellow fever, which was popularly known as yellow Jack. In days before medicine was as advanced as it is now one common form of treatment for a victim of the fever was to light a fire in their room in the hope that the flames would draw out the fever. It probably did not work but at least the patient was kept warm. As a precaution when there was an outbreak of fever, lit candles would be placed by the side of a child’s bed to guard it against the disease. The theory goes that the rhyme is an invocation to the fever to avoid the candle and, therefore, the child so protected and to leap into the fire, thus eliminating the danger of infection. Ingenious as this may be, there is no compelling reason to think it is the case.

The third suspect is the pursuit of candle jumping which formed part of the St Catherine’s Day celebrations on 25th November in more innocent times. The participant was required to jump over a two-foot-tall lighted candle. If this was achieved successfully without knocking it over or extinguishing the flame, then the celebrant would have good luck for the following year. Failing to clear the flame could result in an injury such as Jack suffered, perhaps the harbinger of the ill fortune that will follow. Particularly popular amongst the lace makers of Buckinghamshire the practice rather petered out in the late 19th century, perhaps because of ‘elf and safety concerns.

Lace making wasn’t an exclusively female occupation so we don’t have to worry that Jack is a male. Of the three theories, this is the most compelling but I can’t help thinking that this is an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for a simple rhyme. Perhaps we should just be content with taking it at face value, an amusingly uncomplicated rhyme. But where would be the fun in that?