Author: Darin

Patient #1

On May 20, 1817, five days after the Friends’ Asylum opened, a woman in her late 40s, who had been suffering from melancholy for 11 years was admitted to the asylum as Patient #1.[1] Neither the superintendent nor the attending physician noted who brought her. The superintendent noted, briefly:

[Patient #1] was brought this Afternoon as a Patient by the Certificate accompanying it appears that She is about 48 Years of Age and has been 11 Years Insane—She appears to be of the Melancholy cast.

The attending physician offered more detail:

[Patient #1] admitted into the Asylum “for the relief of persons deprived of the use of their reason.” 5th Mo. 20th 1817. She is a native of Wilmington Del. aged 49 years. Her disease is of eleven years continuance. She has been in the Pennsylvania Hospital some years (number not known) and was discharged from there incurable. The last three years she was confined in the Poor House near Wilmington. No cause has been assigned for her derangement. She never has shown any disposition to injure herself or any other person except her Father. Doct. Monroe says in his certificate that no medical means have been used for her recovery.

The years leading up to Patient #1’s arrival were difficult. She had been confined to Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. When she had been discharged, she returned to a poor house near Wilmington, her hometown. Whoever—probably her father— brought her to the asylum must have been intent on finding her better care, for they were willing to travel nearly 40 miles and pay $3.50 per week for her to stay at the asylum. Yet they didn’t offer the physician much information about her condition or its cause.

The physician’s Medical Register records symptoms and treatments for patients in the asylum. This is the first page of Patient #1’s treatment.

Three days after she was admitted, the physician prescribed medicine “Sulp. soda,” probably the cathartic sulphate of soda, which produced the expected results. Although she engaged the physician in rational conversation when she had to, he found her reluctance to converse or exercise as evidence that she continued to suffer from her melancholy. Two days later, he reported that “She appear[ed] more cheerful … [and] express[ed] great desire to go home to her father, and much fear that some person will kill her.” Two weeks later the physician prescribed another cathartic medicine, this time “Sulp magnes.,” probably sulphate of magnesia (or Epsom salt), along with a warm bath. The superintendent noted in his daybook that the warm bath and “salts” quickly became a common treatment. Patient #1 continued to express a desire to go home to her father. Only threats of restraint quieted her. Some days she engaged in productive labor, other days she hoped to die. All the while the superintendent and the physician administered different treatments, medicines, and threats of constraint to bring her behavior within the bounds of acceptable.

Patient #1 spent the next 39 months in the asylum, oscillating between these poles of cheerful and productive, at one end, and profoundly melancholic, at the other. Finally, on August 1, 1820 she was discharged “much improved.” The superintendent remarked:

This morning [Patient #1] left us. Her father mentioned his gratitude for our kindness and his high opinion of the value of the Institution. [She] parted with us on friendly terms and engaged to come back without difficulty if her father and Brother required it.

Through the superintendent’s records and the physician’s register we can piece together bits of her life during the three years she was in the asylum. Her experience in the asylum, the types of medicines and other medical treatments as well as the division of responsibilities for administering those treatments between the superintendent who had no medical training and the physician, the role of the superintendent’s wife, the importance of employment, her reported behavior, etc., give us a glimpse of what it meant to be deemed insane in early 19th-century America.


  1. The documents differ, the Daybook says “about 48;” the Medical Register indicates she was 49. Unfortunately, the admissions letters have been lost, so we can’t know more about her  ↩

Anti-Smoking, ca. 1879

In 1879 the Phrenological Journal published two short anti-smoking reports. The first, in February, purportedly summarized an article in the British Medical Monthly: “What Smoking does for Boys.” Apparently a physician concerned by the number of boys under 15 he saw smoking, decided to see if he could document the health issues related to smoking. So he gathered together 38 boys ranging from 9 to 15 and examined them.[1] He found “injurious traces of the habit” and

various disorders of the circulation and digestion, palpitation of the heart, and a more or less taste for strong drink, … frequent bleeding of the nose, disturbed sleep, slight ulceration of mucous membrane of the mouth.

They all showed signs of general weakness. When they stopped smoking, “health and strength were soon restored.” We should believe these claims, the Phrenological Journal assures us, because “these facts are given under the authority of the British Medical Monthly.”

Anti-smoking illustration in the Phrenological Journal

In June, the Phrenological Journal published a slightly longer piece lambasting men for smoking not because it was bad for your health, but because it was a filthy, stinky, degrading habit.

Young man, if you wish to make yourself obnoxious to a large portion of the genteel, and a still larger portion of the sensible people; if you want to contract a habit that makes necessary separate accommodation for you in cars or on boats, where your offense may not smell in the nostrils of respectable people; which makes them drop out of the atmosphere of your smokestack, or swing around the mephitic pools you leave at intervals in your wake — a habit which turns you out of the parlor and drawing-room into the club-house, bar-room, or into the streets — from the society of refined ladies into a lower order of social intercourse; which fills your system with a poison so offensive that the breath you exhale, and the insensible perspiration you cast off, vitiates the air for rods about you, and makes you a walking nuisance from which delicate nostrils turn away in disgust — then begin early the use of tobacco.

The author continues for another four paragraphs in the same tone of moral condemnation — e.g., referring to smoking as a “great canker worm” and beseeching the reader: “don’t steep your own body in the distilled juices of this defiling and paralyzing poison.” — never mentioning any health effects.

I don’t see immediately any connection between the use of tobacco and the Phrenological Journal. But clearly the editors of the journal saw the connection. I wonder how many other anti-smoking articles appeared in the pages of the journal.


  1. Clearly this physician was operating under a different set of ethical guidelines. I assume he didn’t have to get the approval from the 19th-century version of an IRB.  ↩

Newton Relics

In an editorial taking Kyrie Irving to task for his comments about the shape of the earth, “Between Kyrie Irving’s flat Earth and Isaac Newton’s apple tree, science remains a process of understanding,” Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse remark:

We have an apple tree on the Case Western Reserve University campus grown from a twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity 350 years ago.
We’d love for Mr. Irving to come see our tree and look at what we’re doing. Decide for himself if we’re deluded.

I cannot understand how this comment about Newton’s apple tree adds anything to their op-ed. Their comment, however, takes scientific relics to a new level.

The Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University celebrates its Newtonian apple tree.

There is no shortage of Newtonian apple trees. Numerous colleges and universities claim to have an apple tree descended from the “original apple tree grown in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor:” Cambridge University Botanic Garden; University of Nebraska; William & Mary; The University of York; MIT; etc.[1] Most of these trees are growing in courtyards or gardens associated with physics and astronomy departments, not history departments. Why, I wonder, do so many science departments want to have and want to celebrate their Newtonian apple trees? I can’t help but see these trees as quasi-secular relics, i.e., as markers of prestige and physical ties to saint-like figures, as means of tapping into archetypal geniuses. As physical artifacts, these relics seem to reinforce hagiographic discovery narratives.[2]

The claim to have “an apple tree … from a twig of the actual apple orchard” seems, however, to take the quasi-secular relic a step further. Somehow the spatial proximity is sufficient and important—their tree descends from a tree in the “actual orchard.” Did some occult force emanate from “the original tree” and permeate the entire orchard? How far does the influence from Newton’s original apple tree extend? To all of Woolsthorpe? To all of England? And why emphasize the “actual apple orchard”? As opposed to what, the virtual apple orchard? I just don’t get it.

In this case, the twig underscores the myth that Newton was a genius who, in a flash of brilliance, understood the theory of gravity. In this case, the twig is a metonym for a discovery narrative. Although the basic contours of that narrative are familiar, less well known is the process by which that story was established.

Around 1727 a handful of sources refer to Newton and his experience with an apple. Robert Greene reported a version in his The Principles of the Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces…, claiming to have heard it from Martin Folkes. John Conduitt recorded a version in his draft of a “Memoir of Newton:”

…in the year 1665 when he retired to his own estate on account of the Plague he first discovered first thought of his system of gravity wch he fell into hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree a heavy body fall to the ground…[3]

Conduitt repeated this claim in other drafts of his work.

About the same time we find the earliest printed version of the story, which seems to be in Voltaire’s An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (London, 1727). He claims: “And thus in our days Sir Isaak Newton walkign in his Gardens had the first Thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an Apple falling from a Tree.” Six years later Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733), where he gives us more context for the story:

But being retir’d in 1666, upon Account of the Plague, to a Solitude near Cambridge: as he [Newton] was walking one Day in his Garden, as saw some Fruits fall from a Tree, he fell into a profound Meditation on that Gravity….”

Voltaire claims to have heard the story from Catherine Barton, John Conduitt’s wife. And Henry Pemberton gestured to the anecdote in his A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728), though he omits any reference to the apple, mentioning only that Newton “sat alone in his garden.”

It is unclear how many independent sources there are for these early accounts. Greene refers to Martin Folkes. Conduitt doesn’t cite any source, though he might have heard it directly from Newton—the Conduitts were living with Newton at the end of his life. Pemberton doesn’t cite any source. Voltaire refers to Barton, who probably learned it from Conduitt. So maybe two independent sources, Folkes and Conduitt.

William Stukeley claimed to have heard the story of the apple tree directly from Newton.

Apparently around the same time William Stukeley heard the story directly from Newton, or so he claims. In his manuscript notes “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” (1752) Stukeley claims that Newton had related the incident to him after dinner one evening in 1726:[4]

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he [Newton], & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: “Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. Therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. If matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.” That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe….[5]

We might pause and wonder about this story. There is no record of the story for six decades and then, just before Newton dies, it appears in manuscript and print from people who could have heard it from Newton. Newton was at this time an 83- or 84-year-old man recalling events that happened perhaps as many as 60 years earlier. We certainly have reason to be skeptical of his account. 83-year-old men tend not to recall events accurately, and their narratives tend to toward exaggeration and teleology. Perhaps Newton was the exception—perfect, infallible memory and absolute fidelity to events—though given his experiments with mercury and other chemicals, we would be forgiven for questioning his memory. But we don’t and can’t know that he was. While we can’t confirm the story, its veracity is not its most important aspect.

We can confirm, however, that whatever brilliant insight the falling apple produced in 1666, it had no immediate discernible impact on his work. Two decades elapsed between the apple’s fall and Newton’s Principia mathematica, during which time he devoted considerable attention to alchemy and optics, as well as astronomy. Perhaps he fiddled with the mathematics for two decades. Perhaps he slowly through trial and error worked out the details, struggling to solve new difficulties as he worked to assemble the entire work, slowly working his way toward the system we encounter today in the Principia mathematica. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, he sat down in some philosopher’s-stone fueled rampage and wrote down the entire Principia mathematica in one frenetic weekend of brilliance and productivity, and then sat on it for two decades. We don’t really know.

But highlighting the apple tree story—especially when the best you can say is that your tree descends from a “twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity”—effaces the arduous work, the mistakes and dead ends, the inchoate solutions, the revisions, and the tangible and intangible contributions other people made to bring the Principia mathematica to fruition.

While I’m not in Cleveland, I invite Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse to talk to me. I’d be happy to explain historical expertise and history to them. I think we can find a great deal of common ground—and not just because we all struggle to refute the flat earth myth.


  1. A piece of the original was sent into space, Newton’s apple tree bound for zero gravity.  ↩

  2. On hagiographies and discovery narratives, see Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?  ↩

  3. The text is available at The Newton Project—Fair copy of the Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” to find the passage.  ↩

  4. Images of the manuscript can be seen at The Royal Society’s Turning the Pages, “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.”  ↩

  5. You can find a normalized version of the text at Revised Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” if you want to find the passage.  ↩