The Human Body

The Supernatural Bunnymother of Surrey

The men from London arrived just in time to see Mary Toft give birth to her fifteenth rabbit.

It was the winter of 1726, and Nathaniel St. André and Samuel Molyneux arrived in the market town of Godalming in Surrey to meet Mary Toft, a short, stout peasant of "stupid and sullen temper" (per St. André's later, embittered description). They found the country-woman waiting at the house of local man-midwife John Howard. She was lingering on the edge of a bed, stripped down to her corset. Howard assured the Londoners that they had come just in time.

Soon Mary Toft's body began to twist and contort. Her throes could be so powerful that her clothes would fly off her body, and the woman would have to be held down in her chair. Sometimes the labors lasted up to a day and a half. Toft's belly would "leap," a phenomenon Howard thought was caused by baby rabbits jumping around inside Toft's uterus. One was observed to hop like this for eighteen hours.

But that winter day, the labor was not prolonged, and soon Toft had delivered her child--the skinned torso of a small rabbit. The men from London started dissecting it right there on the floor. St. André--surgeon anatomist to the King of England himself--took a section of lung and put it in a basin of water. It floated, showing that the lungs had air in them, which suggested that the creature had breathed before it died. The rabbit's anus was found to have feces in it, which meant that the small animal must have eaten something. There was no blood.

St. André then turned his attention to the mother, who had been waiting patiently by the fire. He found that one breast produced a thin, watery milk. After palpating Mary's stomach, St. André found a hard lump in the woman's right side. From this he concluded that the rabbits had been bred in Toft's fallopian tubes, after which they had hopped down to her uterus, where they developed. With no prospect of another birth any time soon, the men retired.

In the evening Mary Toft fell into convulsions again--this time so violent she had to be held in her chair. "After three or four very strong Pains that lasted several minutes, I delivered her of the skin of the rabbet, rolled and squeezed up like a Ball," St André wrote later. The rabbit's head came soon after, complete except for one ear.

Satisfied, St. André and his companion Molyneux returned to London with some of Mary's purported offspring, preserved by Howard in jars of alcohol. By the end of the year, all of England--even King George I himself--would know about the woman who had given birth to rabbits.

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The Conductor

Roy Sullivan was a ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA. He became famous for unwittingly shattering a rather unenviable world record. This newer, shorter, experimentaler podcast episode tells his story.

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The Science of Mental Fitness

It’s a testament to the strength and versatility of the human brain that anyone with at least half of one tends to assume that their senses give them direct access to objective reality. The truth is less straightforward and much more likely to induce existential crises: the senses do not actually provide the brain with a multifaceted description of the outside world. All that the brain has to work with are imperfect incoming electrical impulses announcing that things are happening. It is then the job of neurons to rapidly interpret these signals as well as they can, and suggest how to react.

This neurological system has done a pretty good job of modelling the world such that the ancestors of modern human beings avoided getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers before procreating, but the human brain remains relatively easy to fool. Optical illusions, dreams, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and the placebo effect are just a handful of familiar cases where what the brain perceives does not correspond to whatever is actually occurring. The formation of a coherent model of the world often relies on imagined components. As it turns out, this pseudo-reality in one’s imagination can be so convincing that it can have unexpected effects on the physical body.

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Meddle, Metal, and Mettle

Charles J Guiteau
Charles J Guiteau
In 1881, silk top hats and bow ties were the height of gentlemanly fashion, monocles were the preferred means of corrective vision, and the suggested greeting on newfangled telephone contraptions was a cheerful "ahoy-hoy". One June Saturday of that year, as the sweaty, swampy summer was just beginning to settle over Washington DC, a gentleman strolled into the US capital’s district jail on the banks of the Anacostia River. The visitor was well-dressed, about 40 years of age, slight of frame, and sunken of cheek. A weedy patch of gray-tinged whiskers sprouted from his chin, and his face was punctuated by a pair of dark, wide-set eyes which were predisposed to shiftiness. He was an attorney named Charles J Guiteau. He approached the attending guard at the Bastille jail and requested a tour of the facilities.

Deputy Warden Russ eyeballed the man, as deputy wardens do, and explained that visitors were only allowed to tour on particular days. Undeterred, Mr Guiteau surveyed the fraction of the structure that he could see from the office, and remarked that the facility was, "a very excellent jail." The steadfast deputy warden urged the would-be sightseer to return at a more appropriate time. Mr Guiteau decided that he would do exactly that, and departed.

Although Charles Guiteau was a licensed lawyer, his visit to the Bastille was not on behalf of a soon-to-be-incarcerated client. As he would later explain, he had visited the prison to "see what kind of quarters I would have to occupy." Perhaps most importantly, he wanted to ensure that the structure would be able to withstand the angry mob that would soon pursue him. Such were the details that a gentleman must attend to when he plans to assassinate the president.

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Aches on a Plane

Alongside Memphis International Airport in Tennessee there lies a sprawling complex filled with hundreds of miles of conveyor belts, thousands of employees, and millions of parcels. A steady stream of cargo planes--often hundreds per day--carries in cargo from around the world to be sorted and redistributed. This is the FedEx Express global "SuperHub," and in spite of its titillating name it is seldom the site of much excitement. One notable exception to the day-to-day routine occurred in mid-1994. It was the same year that Federal Express embraced the abbreviated "FedEx" moniker and changed to their infamous hidden-arrow logo, and it was just four years after the release of MC Hammer's multi-platinum hit U Can't Touch This.

On 7 April 1994, just after 3:00pm, 39-year-old FedEx flyer Andy Peterson boarded a DC-10 cargo plane at the SuperHub. He was scheduled to join Flight 705 as the flight engineer; a support role in charge of monitoring and operating aircraft systems. As Peterson entered the aircraft, he was greeted by 42-year-old Auburn Calloway, a fellow flight engineer. Calloway introduced himself as the "deadhead," for the flight. He was just there because he needed a lift.

Shortly the men were joined by the plane's pilot, 49-year-old Captain David Sanders, and his 42-year-old co-pilot Captain Jim Tucker. The DC-10 had a bellyful of electronic gear bound for San Jose, ultimately destined for Silicon Valley. But flight 705 wouldn't make it anywhere near California that day.

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Bound By Tradition

On 20 October 1998, the Zhiqiang Shoe Factory in Harbin, China sent out a press release stating that they were officially halting production of a curious variety of footwear known as “lotus shoes.” This announcement may appear pedestrian to Western eyes, but in a way it was a symbolic epitaph for a bizarre custom which had been in practice in parts of China for about a thousand years: a process known as foot binding.

Until the mid-twentieth century, a girl born into an affluent family in China was almost certain to be taken aside sometime in her first few years to begin a process of sculpting her feet into tiny, pointed “lotus” feet. This body modification was intended to attract suitors and flaunt one's upper-crusty status. The culture at large considered these reshaped feet to be beautiful, and the dainty gait that resulted from such radically reshaped extremities was seen as alluring, but the process of producing lotus feet was grisly, problematic, and led to lifelong podiatric problems.

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Rider on the Storm

In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. In another Crusader followed his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.

Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft's engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader's emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”

Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn't seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00 pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.

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The Heroes of SARS

On 21 February 2003, a physician in Hong Kong was feeling particularly unwell. He must have had an inkling that something serious was amiss, for his symptoms closely matched those of a number of patients he had treated in recent weeks: fever, aching muscles, headache, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. An alarmingly high proportion of these people had become critically ill, with inflamed, fluid-saturated lungs. Breathing was rendered somewhat difficult, and death frequently followed.

Although the sixty-four year old nephrologist resided in the Guangdong region of southern China, he was enjoying time away for a family wedding when the worst of the symptoms struck. Sketchy reports of a mysterious respiratory illness had been filtering out of his home province for several months, but the official channels gave no indication of anything untoward. The day he arrived in Hong Kong he felt well enough to check into his room on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel, and he even did some sightseeing and shopping later in the afternoon. But the following morning his condition had worsened, and he was forced to seek care at the territory’s Kwong Wah Hospital. There he told staff he feared he had contracted “a very virulent disease,” and suggested immediate isolation. Yet the damage had already been done.

Back at the Metropole Hotel, globetrotting guests from the ninth floor were preparing to leave for Canada, Singapore, and Vietnam. Soon, they too would fall ill. In less than a week, the world would be left poised on the brink of a pandemic. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had arrived. While the occupants of the western hemisphere often remember the events in the context of an overblown media frenzy, many epidemiologists today regard the outbreak as a near-miss for humanity-- one which might have become one of history's most unpleasant epidemics had it not been for the quick thinking and selflessness of a few individuals.

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DAMN LARGE

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