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.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed well over 50 million people around the world.
The image above is less obviously horrifying. It shows people playing baseball while wearing masks.
The crowd wear masks as well. And that reflects the most terrifying and devastating aspect of the 1918 pandemic in a way the other pictures don’t:
It killed anyone. Young, healthy adults—of the sort that play baseball—normally rarely care about the flu, but the 1918 outbreak was different. It killed anyone, and we still don’t really know why.
The photo also represents a sad futility when you learn that the masks didn’t protect people.
While cotton gauze may stop bacteria, viruses are much smaller. Yet pictures record large groups wearing them, from police in Seattle, to paperboys in Canada, to soldiers in France, right down to the general public.
Not one of them was protected in any way from one of the deadliest events in human history.
With all those gleaming, stainless-steel tools readied for painful prodding, few people look forward to visiting the dentist.
But modern dentistry is a walk in the park compared with archaic methods of treating oral maladies:
Be glad you’re not seeking treatment for mysterious “tooth worms” or using dentures filled with the syphilitic teeth of dead soldiers.
“By the time Washington was elected president, he only had one natural tooth remaining in his mouth.”
“Dentistry, as we understand it today, didn’t emerge as a licensed profession until the end of the 19th century, although practitioners had been calling themselves dentists since the late 1700s,” says Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, who studies the history of science, medicine, and technology, and is the creator of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.
Before dentistry became its own field, tooth-related issues were handled by any ordinary doctor, though little was understood about oral health and the reasons teeth might decay.
The important role of healthy teeth wasn’t lost on the ancients: Since at least 3000 B.C., people in the Mesopotamian region used the frayed ends of fibrous twigs or chew sticks, also known as miswak or siwak sticks, to clean their teeth.
“Different cultures have used twigs from trees and shrubs with wood grain that is very intertwined,” says Scott Swank, a dentist, historian, and curator of the National Museum of Dentistry.
“You peel the bark off and chew it to get the fibers to fray out, and then you use those frayed fibers to clean your teeth. They’re still used today in some parts of Africa and the Middle East.”
A canine suspected of being rabid that had been exhibiting symptoms of rabies, including restlessness and overall uncharacteristic aggressive behavior.
Rabies is one of mankind’s long-feared diseases. And rightfully so: for centuries, a bite from a crazed, slavering animal was almost always a guarantee of a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise. A death sentence.
I just recently finished reading about our long and tragic relationship with rabies in Rabid: A Cultural History Of The World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, easily one of the finest non-fiction narratives on infectious diseases.
The husband-and-wife duo have synergistically joined forces as a journalist and public health veterinarian to write a witty and thorough telling of the history and cultural mythology of the virus and the animals that it infects, us included.
The book charts the earliest mentions of rabies treatment in ancient Greek and medieval Islamic medicine, and follows its manifestations in folklore, literature and cinema, and to its eventual taming in the development of Pasteur’s hard-won vaccine.
It’s a delightful read spanning the stories of Odysseus and American frontiersmen, of the Brontë sisters and Stephen King, and of Christian saints and vampire.
A hospitalized man is shown in restraints as he suffers from the final stages of the rabies infection, 1959. Image: CDC
Upon finishing the book, I felt that there appeared to be no aspect of our culture that this virus hasn’t played a role in infecting and transfiguring.
But the most intriguing aspect of the book is its brief sojourn into the development of some of our most historically endurable monsters: vampires, werewolves and zombies. The authors write,
Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, Europe gestated two enduring legends whose part-human, part-animal villains bite their victims, thereby passing along their own degraded conditions.
Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself.
That is, it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins – for the rabid bite is the visible symbol of the animal infecting the human, of an illness in a creature metamorphosing demonstrably into that same illness in a person.
An 18th century caricature using a devil figure to illustrate the pain and inflammation caused by gout. In the middle ages pain was seen as a lesson from God. (James Gillray (1756-1815)/ Getty Images)
‘Pain is Ageless’ and UK historian Joanna Bourke has just released The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. She recently spoke with Antony Funnell about suffering and its social and historical context.
At its most basic, pain is an early warning system. It signals danger—that something is wrong—but it can also be a pleasure.
Many of us devour chilli not just because of the flavour it imparts, but because of the way it makes us feel—that tingling, burning feeling that’s all too addictive.
There is pleasure also in the infliction and receipt of pain, and not just for those who dwell in the darker corners of society. Witness the phenomenal mainstream success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
The amount of pain that we feel is really very, very dependent on a lot of external circumstances. It’s influenced by everything around us.
Pain has also been an instrument of authority.
The hanging, drawing and quartering of traitors in 14th century England had little to do with justice. A simple blade would have sufficed.
Such punishments were about making a public display of pain to reiterate the power of the state, indeed the power of the monarch, over human life itself.
That developed nations no longer use pain in this way (even in the United States executions are at least intended to be quick and surgical) speaks to the fact that our relationship with pain is subject to social mores, to fashion over time—that it is imbued with historical context.