A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities
In ten essays, Jan Bondeson brings a physician's diagnostic skills to various unexpected, gruesome, and extraordinary aspects of the history of medicine: spontaneous human combustion, colonies of snakes and frogs living in a person's stomach, kings and emperors devoured by lice, vicious tribes of tailed men, and the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal. Bondeson tells the story of Mary Toft, who gained notoriety in 1726 when she allegedly gave birth to seventeen rabbits. King George I, the Prince of Wales, and the court physicians attributed these monstrous births to a "maternal impression, " because Mary had longed for a meal of rabbit while pregnant. Bondeson explains that the fallacy of maternal impressions, conspicuous in the novels of Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens, has ancient roots in Chinese and Babylonian manuscripts. Bondeson also presents the tragic case of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian woman with thick hair over much of her body and a massive overgrowth of the gums that gave her an apelike appearance. Called the Ape Woman, she was exhibited all over the world. After her death in 1860, Julia's husband, who had also been her impresario, had her body mummified and continued to exhibit her throughout Europe. Bondeson tracked the mummy down and managed to diagnose Julia Pastrana's condition as a rare genetic syndrome.
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