Author: Darin

Flat Earth Globe!

“As part of Groupon’s commitment to science,” the online coupon site offered on April 1 a special on 2-D, flat earth globes.

Groupon’s 2-D, flat earth globe, showing the wall of ice we’ve been tricked into thinking is polar ice caps.

The description neatly poked fun at the recent NBA fad to claim the earth is flat—gotta like referring to Shaquille O’Neal as “The Big Aristotle”—as well as conspiracy theories about NASA hiding evidence that the polar ice caps are really ice walls around the rim. I guess we’ll find out when they melt.

The Groupon page advertising the 2-D, flat earth globe, complete with description that mocks NBA players and conspiracy theorists.

Sadly, it is no longer available. But if you really want one, contact me. I along with more than 680 other people downloaded the PDF. I’m willing to share.

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.  ↩