Strange tales from the Royal Society
- 26 October 2011
- From the section Magazine
The world's oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society, has made its historical journal, which includes about 60,000 scientific papers, permanently free to access online.
The plague, the Great Fire of London and even the imprisonment of its editor - just a few of the early setbacks that hit the Royal Society's early editions of the Philosophical Transactions. But against the odds the publication, which first appeared in 1665, survived. Its archives offer a fascinating window on the history of scientific progress over the last few centuries.
Nestling amongst illustrious papers by Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are some undiscovered gems from the dawn of the scientific revolution, including gruesome tales of students being struck by lightning and experimental blood transfusions.
Here are some of the more curious items from the early archive.
Death by lightning, 1665
Dr Wallis from Oxford wrote a paper about a grisly boating accident during a thunder storm in Oxford, which left a "stinking, sulphurous smell in the air". Two students out in a boat had been struck by lightning. One died instantly, the other was "stuck fast in the mud", apparently "with his feet downwards and his upper parts above water". Besides "a numbness" he was unhurt, but had no memory of what happened to him and why he was stuck in the mud.
Dr Wallis also provides a detailed account of a post-mortem examination he and others performed on the dead student. He reports the body had no wounds apart from a series of black marks on his neck, shoulder and chest "as if it had been seared with a hot iron". Some of the buttons on the student's doublet had also been blown off, he added.
The view from the moon, 1665
The French astronomer Adrien Auzout wrote about what "supposed inhabitants of the Moon" would be likely to see when they look down on earth, including changes of season.
"Methinks, that the Earth would to the people of the Moon appear to have a different face in the several seasons of the year," he wrote. For example, in winter, when "there is almost nothing green in a very great part of the earth", or summer, "when whole fields are yellow".
He also speculated that forest fires would be visible from the Moon. Mr Auzout was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1666 and briefly considered constructing a huge aerial telescope 1,000ft (305m) in length to observe animals on the Moon.
Too much star gazing, 1665
'A very curious person studying physic at Leyden' (Leiden, in Holland) wrote about some odd things that happened to people's bodies. These included a student of astronomy whose pores became blocked after spending so many nights star gazing outside in the cold and damp that he was no longer able to sweat.
He also wrote about the tragic case of a 13-year-old girl, who since she was six had filled her pockets with salt and eaten it "as other children do sugar". The tale did not have a happy ending. Eventually she had become "so dried up, and grown so stiff, that she could not stir her limbs, and was thereby starved to death".
A canine blood transfusion, 1666
Thomas Coxe wrote about an early blood transfusion from one dog to another. He transferred blood from a dog suffering from mange into a healthy one - to see if the healthy dog would be infected.
First he procured "an old mongrel cur, all over-run with the mange" and fed it up with "cheese parings and milk". He then transfused about 14oz or 16oz (397g to 434g) of its blood into the veins of a healthy spaniel. The effect of the experiment was no change in the healthy dog and the mangy dog was "perfectly cured" in 10 days.
The swallowed bullet, 1668
Dr Nathan Fairfax wrote about a woman who swallowed a bullet, which was expelled from her body in a very surprising way. The "pale, middle-aged, full bodied" woman had suffered bowel problems and had been advised by a neighbour to swallow two bullets. Apparently this gave her some temporary relief, but then her symptoms returned and she consulted Dr Fairfax's apothecary. He wrote that he gave her some "Lady Hollands powder to take in a posset drink", which made her vomit.
The following morning when using her chamber pot the woman claimed to have heard a "twang" and that along with some urine she saw a bullet, which she believed she had also passed out. The doctor concluded: "It shall be said, that Nature, when put to shifts, finds out strange conveyances to rid the body of what is extraneous and offensive to it".