Photographic Image: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a very famous person with Dyslexia.
Dyslexia defined by Google search is a: “Developmental reading disorder is a reading disability that occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols.” Wow, that is so clinical and precise.
Dyslexia is much more than a learning disability. Yet before the 1900′s, this childhood development was the subject of much conjecture and how children learned was still pretty much theorised.
A plethora of terms was used to describe the problem such as “word blindness” or “strephosymbolia.”
It was 1878 when German neurologist, Adolph Kussmaul, coined the phrase “word blindness” describing what we know as dyslexia today.
He had a special interest in adults with reading problems who also had neurological impairment.
He noticed that several of his patients could not read properly and regularly used words in the wrong order. He introduced the term ‘word blindness’ to describe their difficulties.
The phrase, word blindness, then began to be used regularly in the medical journals to describe adults and children who had difficulty learning to read.
This phrase also conveyed the fact that these patients were neurologically impaired. ~ Understanding Dyslexia: A Guide for Teachers and Parents: The history of dyslexia
In 1887, a German opthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, was the first to use the word ‘dyslexia’ but it wasn’t widely used or accepted to replace the “word blindness” as of yet.
It’s like Manic Depressive Disorder perfectly describes the condition… Whereas Bipolar Disorder took a while to catch on. Seems the same was true for “word blindness” that perfectly describes dyslexia, where we skipped words, suffixes and endings.
“Dyslexia appeared in 1891 with a report in The Lancet medical journal by Dr Dejerne.”
Ah, ha just when you think Dyslexia would go mainstream:
“Dr James Hinshelwood, a Scottish eye surgeon, published an account of a patient who had reading difficulties and also a congenital defect in the brain related to eyesight.
From this evidence, he concluded that the cause of reading difficulties was a malfunction of eyesight as a result of a brain defect.
Dr Hinshelwood’s work reinforced the use of the term word blindness and this phrase persisted throughout the early twentieth century.”
Watercolour: Shen Nung seated at the mouth of a cave, dressed in traditional garb made from leaves, holding a branch with leaves and berries in his right hand. Anonymous Chinese artist, 1920. Wellcome Images
This circa 1920 watercolour is a copy of an ancient original and can be found in the Wellcome Library’s Art Collection.
Legend has it that Shen Nong (神农), or ‘Divine Farmer’, was one of the Three Sovereigns, a group of mythological rulers and deities from ancient China circa 2852 to 2070 BC who established the Chinese life-arts.
Said to have been born the son of a princess and a heavenly dragon, Shen Nong is believed to have taught the ancient Chinese their practices of agriculture, as well as the use of herbal drugs, which became the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine.
The earliest written record connecting Shen Nong to the practice of Chinese herbal medicine is found in the Huai Nan Zi (淮南子), or ‘The Masters of Huainan’, the Chinese philosophical classic from the Han dynasty in 122BCE.
The text claims that Shen Nong transformed the ancient people’s diet from one of meat, wild fruits and clams by teaching them how to sow and harvest grains and vegetables.
He is also said to have discovered and classified some 365 species of herbs and medicinal plants and is often referred to as the ‘God of Chinese herbal medicine’.
Tea is allegedly one of his great discoveries, as it proved to be the antidote for almost 70 varieties of poisons. Shen Nong discovered tea by accident when the tea leaves from twigs he was using for a fire rose up on a column of hot air and landed in the water he was trying to boil.
Being a keen herbalist, he tasted the resulting brew and this became the origins of tea. Shen Nong tasted hundreds of herbs in order to determine their medicinal value.
The story of Shen Nong has been passed down orally for centuries and has been differently embellished throughout histories.
Some versions even claim Shen Nong had a see-through stomach that allowed him to see the effects of various herbs on his internal organs.
However, by all accounts, because of his tireless efforts, countless herbs are now commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and knowledge about herbal medicine has been handed down for centuries.
Camp Fever (Typhus) was very common in war zones. Napoleon lost more French soldiers to typhus than to the Russians in his ill fated campaign in Russia. Here we see vaccinations being administered to French soldiers in 1913.
The past was a dangerous time to be alive. If you were lucky enough to survive infancy and adolescence, you were very likely to die of any number of frightful diseases well before you reached what we regard as old age.
Readers of old novels or historical death records are confronted with many unfamiliar names for these illnesses. I’m sure I am not the only person to read pre-1900 novels and think, what is brain fever?
What’s the bloody flux? What on earth is pink disease?
For the benefit of those readers, history students and any one else who is interested, I’ve compiled a brief glossary of medical terms which were once commonly used but are now rare or obsolete.
Mathis Grunewald (1512)
Ague: Any intermittent fever characterised by periods of chills, fevers and sweats
Apoplexy: Now refers to bleeding within internal organs, but historically meant a death which began with sudden loss of consciousness; covered what we now call heart attacks, strokes and aneurysms
Bilious fever: A fever accompanied by nausea, vomiting and diaerrhea
Bloody flux: Dysentery
Brain fever: Difficult to make a diagnosis in hindsight, but possibly meningitis or encephalitis. Very popular as a plot device with 19th century novelists, who portrayed it as a reaction to a severe emotional shock.
Camp fever: Typhus; so-called because it was common in military camps with notoriously poor hygiene
Consumption: Pulmonary tuberculosis. Another popular illness in Victorian novels.
Corruption: General term for infection
Distemper: A disease, especially an infectious one
Dropsy: Edema – abnormal swelling of the body, often caused by kidney or heart disease
In the late 1700s one of the many sources of death, at the time, was a nasty little thing with the incongruously pleasant name of “cinnabar.” We’ll show you how fashion trends combined with chemistry to kill people off.
No one puts on make-up for their health. In the 2000s, fashion regimes involve injecting poison into the face. In the early 1900s, make-up would sometimes blind women and occasionally cover them with radium.
In the 1800s, arsenic-based make-up and tonics would shrink down women’s capillaries and, at times, poison them.
It was in the 1700s that people really went to town. The standards of the day were different. Women liked dark lashes and eyebrows, so they’d darken their facial hair with soot.
Other than that, they wore very little eye make-up. They also didn’t go overboard with the lips. It was the skin that they concentrated on. If you’ve ever seen horror movies involving creepy porcelain dolls with chalk-white skin and dark red splotches on their cheeks, you’ve seen the last remnant of the fashion of the 1700s.
Women painted their faces pure white with Venetian ceruse, which was made by mixing lead with vinegar. Because make-up was expensive, and washing wasn’t considered healthy, they wore this lead until it wore off, sometimes for weeks. (Some ladies at this time also came up with the pre-cursor to botox, an enamel-like coating that stiffened parts of their faces and didn’t allow their skin to wrinkle.)
Then came the pièce de résistance. Red cheeks were considered natural and youthful. A little red was good. More red was better. French court women slathered themselves in it, starting at the corners of their eyes and spreading it to the corners of their mouths. In 1781, French women used two million pots a year.
This rouge had to work well with the white paint, and it had to stick around for a while, so it couldn’t be berry juice. Cosmetics makers put their heads together and came up with a little thing known as cinnabar – a pigment that was sometimes used to decorate paintings or pottery.
We now know it as mercury sulfide. It’s shown to cause neurological disorders, emotional problems, and peeling skin (so once you start using make-up, you need more make-up). Pregnant mice exposed to mercury sulfide gave birth to offspring with incurable neurological disorders.
One celebrated beauty, Maria Gunning, died at twenty-seven due to her make-up. Exactly how many other women (or men, who also painted themselves) died due to mercury or lead poisoning, and how many families were affected, we can’t tell.
Because these products were most used by the rich and powerful, it’s possible that history could be different if people at that time had decided they liked darker skin and eye-shadow.
I often joke that The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice is all about ‘the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery’ and yet, I’ve never written an article which focuses primarily on the patient’s experience before the widespread use of ether beginning in the 1840s.
Suffice-to-say, it was not a pleasant affair.
In 1750, the anatomist, John Hunter, colourfully described surgery as ‘a humiliating spectacle of the futility of science’ and the surgeon as ‘a savage armed with a knife’. He was not far from the truth.
Surgery was brutal and only to be undertaken in extreme circumstances.
In 1811, Fanny Burney had a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
She later recorded the incident vividly for posterity:
When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast—cutting through veins—arteries—flesh—nerves—I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision—and I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still!
Fanny Birney (pictured above) went on to depict her own terror as one that ‘surpasses all description’.
The agony, she said, was ‘excruciating’. So terrible was the operation that her surgeons decided to limit her anxiety by choosing a day at random and giving her only two hours notice before they began.
Fanny was one of the lucky ones.
Not only did she survive surgery, but she also went on to live for another 28 years.