The dearth of posts on The Quack Doctor over the last couple of weeks is owing to the fact that I was away in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory – not on holiday exactly, as I got paid to go and write about it, but nevertheless much more fun than staying at home! For anyone interested, there are some pics here.

While I’m trying to catch up with everything, this brief post is a departure from the usual advertising-related stuff. Today the Guardian and various other newspapers reported on the National Archives’ wonderful Surgeons at Sea project, which has catalogued the records of Royal Navy surgeons and assistant surgeons during the period 1783 to 1880. Selected records have been digitised and are available for download – big files but well worth looking at.

The papers have understandably picked up on a weird and icky story – that of 12-year-old Ellen McCarthy from Cork, who while travelling to Quebec on the ship Elizabeth apparently vomited up a worm 87 inches long. Surgeon P Power, who recorded the case in 1825, displays better penmanship than many of his medical and surgical brethren before and since, but he was scribbling quickly in note form and perhaps the movement of the ship didn’t help either – with the result that I think the case has been misinterpreted.

I’m going to be a killjoy, but I believe the original document says the worm was 8½ inches long, not 87. Disappointing, but there you go. I’ve compared other examples of Mr Power writing ‘½’ and ‘7’ and I’m afraid this instance looks very much closer to the ‘½’. (If I’m wrong, fair enough, but I’m pretty sure.) Several days later, Ellen McCarthy expelled two more worms – one 13½ inches long, the other 7. These must have been Ascaris lumbricoides and it is reasonable to suppose that the first one was too.

As for the treatment, described in the Guardian as oil of ‘terebouth’ – well, Power’s handwriting once again leaves a little to be desired but it’s clear he has put ‘terebinth.’

So that’s me being a bit grumpy in my post-holiday er… I mean post-business-trip slump. I’m not usually one to advocate spoiling a good story, but for me the original source wins. And it’s a good reminder that if you want your own words of wisdom to survive the interpretations of posterity, make sure you write neatly!

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To view the original document, go to http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/surgeonsatsea/ and download ADM 101/76/9. (28mb)

Thank you to regular reader Michael Power (no relation to P) for pointing me in the direction of this story.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Caroline, you tell a much more plausible story than the Guardian.

    The Guardian also reports the worm as being a lumbricus, which (today, if not in 1825) is a common or garden earthworm – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumbricus.

    My handwriting is worse than Dr P Power’s, so I am very glad to be living in the age of computers (and spelling correctors).

  2. Was it or wasn’t it turpentine that was prescribed ?
    So medical practitioners have always had bad handwriting.
    I must admit when I heard this on the radio this morning I struggled to see how a small girl could have harboured quite such a long worm.

    • Yes, it’s turpentine.

      An enormous tapeworm in a small person wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility but I really think this case was roundworms – horrendous enough in themselves, of course!

    • It’s fair enough that he could have used ‘lumbricus’ as a generic term for all worms, but it’s the way he’s written the length that is the main issue.

  3. Caro

    I am sure you are correct. I have seen countless children vomit Ascaris lumbricoides, and never once seen a tape worm.

    Tape worms attach themselves to the lining of the intestine, so it is unusual for them to be expelled, with or against gravity.

  4. Michael,

    On the contrary, tapeworm segments and eggs are expelled with every bowel movement (and sometimes without). If you meant to say that it was unusual for them to be expelled orally, you would be correct.

  5. Buck

    Tapeworm segments (or proglottids) and eggs may be found in the faeces, but I am not sure it is every bowel movement. Tapeworms might need a rest every now and again.

    You need a microscope to see the eggs, and a very sharp eye to see the proglottids.

    Proglottids are most likely to be noticed (*alert – this detail from Wikipedia is especially for Caroline*) when they “trickle down the thighs”.

    http://tiny.cc/TapeWorm

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