Thursday, June 23, 2011

‘So learned and Poly-daedalous a Narration’: Daniel Lakin and the Prussian Knife Swallower

This chap, fortunate to be alive (and perhaps rather gentrified in his moment of celebrity) was the Prussian knife swallower, and that’s the sharp knife he accidentally swallowed shown down the right of the woodcut: it “was just in length ten fingers breadth”.

He was “a rusticke young man by name Andrew Grunheide” and on the morning of May 29th 1635, having perhaps overdone the beer the night before, and apparently accustomed to doing this, he decided he’d be better off if he vomited. His clumsy efforts ended in the knife going down rather than his stomach contents coming up:

“as it was his wont, endeavouring to procure it himself, with the haft of his knife provoked the Gorge, and vomit not presently following did thrust in his knife a little deeper, which partly by the violence, and partly by its own weight so let down and comprehended within the jaws, escaped the extremities of his singers, and by little and little tends to the ventricle.”

Understandably alarmed at what he had just done to himself, he tried a few contortions to reverse the trick: “although the Swallow-knife being somewhat terrified, did by bowing his body downwards, assay the regress of the knife, yet was it all in vain”.

So off he went, and found himself referred on to “the renowned and famous Dan. Swaben, a Chyurgion Physitian, cutter of Ruptures, and an Oculist”. Swaben was among the retinue of “the most Soveraign King of Poland, Vladislaus the 4th “because of an excellent and singular skill in his liberal Art”.

A numbers of doctors gathered to discuss this interesting case. Their decisions, and the operation they performed (successfully) on Grunheide were written up in a German pamphlet, which was translated into English by a sometime ship’s surgeon, Daniel Lakin (with some help from his brother, he says). Grunheide’s situation made him a case that the doctors could both perhaps treat, and learn from.

In the first place, good sense was shown: the lengthy pamphlet, which uses all occasions for medically informative digression, shows that the doctors were well aware of a ‘melancholy’ which might cause someone to claim to have ingested something preposterous. They know, also, about pica, compulsive ingestion of unusual things. Along with these medical cases, demoniacs who vomit up stones, rings, hair and the like transmitted into their body by witchcraft are discussed.

But the decision was that Grunheide had no signs of melancholy (beyond apprehension about the ordeal ahead of him), and that he had swallowed his knife as he claimed.

Grunheide is plied with oils to cleanse his stomach. They decide they must operate while he is still in his strength of health, but first assay the use of a magnetic plaster. This involves pulverizing a magnet, and mixing the filings up in an ointment. Gilbert’s opinion (a real scientific observation, of course) that this destroys all polarity and force in the magnet is known to them, but they are strongly possessed by the hope that such a preparation will attract the metal object towards the point of incision they have decided upon. So the magnetic plasters are applied, and even though after section they have to fish about with a bent needle through the incision to locate the knife, they believe that the usefulness of a magnetic dressing has been confirmed. They interpret the evidence according to their preconception, and what it comes down to in the end was, as ever, authority trumping observation: magnetic ‘emplasters’ work because people you trust say they work: “Ninthly, because in vain had the most famous and expert Physitians framed the Magnetical Emplasters, and from the Load-stone assigned them the denomination, if no faculty of Attraction were thence further to be expected”. I like that very 17th century ‘ninthly’: a former colleague teaching Milton’s prose once suddenly perceived that his class had all since long fallen fainting by the wayside as he reached Milton’s ninth cogent argument for something.

Anyway, here’s how the pamphlet describes the big operation – the prayers beforehand, the patient strapped down, the spectators applauding. I especially like Grunheide confirming to the triumphant operating team that, yes, that’s the very knife he had swallowed - as though by some other means others items from the canteen might have found their way inside him. I rather doubt, on various evidence, that Grunheide was all that bright. Brave and robust, though:

“When all things therefore were ready at hand as well external and internal Cordials, as other Chyrurgicalls, the Divine Assistance and Benediction being first invoked, the Rustic who with an undaunted courage waited the Section, was bound to a wooden Table, and the place being marked out with a Coal, the incision was made towards the left side of the Hypochondrium some two fingers breadth under the short Ribs, according to the direction, and first the skin and that fleshy pannicle (there was no fat seen) and then the subjected Muscles, as also the Peritonaeum was cut and opened. And although the Ventricle did somewhat sink down, and evading our fingers ends did not so presently admit of apprehension, and a little staid the Operator and standers by, yet at length attracted and contracted with a small needle crooked, it showed that the knife was there, which being laid hold on, and the point brought upwards, the Ventricle above the same was a little incised, and the knife successfully extracted, which was viewed by all that were standing by, and greatly applauded both by them and the Patient himself, who professed that this was the very knife he some few days before had swallowed, but the wound it self when the knife was drawn forth was quickly allayed.”

The aftercare of the patient recalls Gloucester in King Lear: “The Knife being successfully brought forth, and the Patient eased of his bands, the wound was in that manner as was fitting cleansed, and the Abdomen that was incised, closed up with 5. Sutures, but by their interstices the Balsam was infused warm, and Tents impregnated with Balsam laid thereon, and then a Cataplasm of Bole, the white of an egg, and Alum to avert all inflammation laid upon that.” Egg whites seem bacterially hazardous, but the albumen would have had some coagulant effect.

Over the next days, Grunheide is carefully observed, with the usual emphasis on urine and stools. The original pamphlet is keen to report one of their important deductions:

“Position 8 … the excretion of clotted blood by Urine is to be reckoned for a benefit of a provident nature.” Most important of all, is the deduction that the operation - opening the body and then cutting into the stomach - is worth trying, rather than simply deciding that the patient is going to die: “wounds that pierce the substance of the Ventricle, the Chyrurgeon shall not let them alone as deplorable and remediless, yea nor spare labour nor industry in the sedulous Curation of them, for a doubtful hope is better then a certain desperation.”

“And so by the grace and clemency of the Omnipotent Jehovah, and supreme Director, and with the singular industry and dexterity of the Physitians and Chyrurgion, our Rustic Swallow-knife was restored to very good health, who now complains not any thing of any dolours of the Ventricle, but being returned to his accustomed diet and ordinary calling, with us gives thanks to the immortal God. To him therefore bee the glory, praise, and honour for ever and ever, Amen.

The English translator of all this, Daniel Lakin, had an eventful life. In 1632 he was apparently a ship’s surgeon on a warship called the Hector, and he tells of his own cure of Richard Partridge, quartermaster on the ship, who was wounded by a dagger thrust through the stomach wall during a fight on board.

Partridge “lived about a year and a half after, till he perished under the burthen of a sorrowful Captivity, wherein I did partake with many other…” The ship and his crew were captured by Turks, and Lakin’s own survival was probably down to his useful skills as surgeon. He was in captivity in Constantinople, until the English ambassador there, Peter Witch, either ransomed him, or protected him once Lakin had fled to his embassy. Lakin had a spell he describes as his “time of my service to the Emperor of Morocco”. He was present at a defeat of the Emperor in the Atlas mountains “many Moors there dangerously hurt, and with myself by flight escaping visited me, at my house in the City of the Jews (where all Christians have residence) imploring Cure, I receiving some that I judged curable though not profitable, into my care.”

Lakin had all too much opportunity to study the effect of dangerous wounds, and his translation advertises this: “In my Travailes, by observation, experience, & conversation with both Jewish, Arabian, Italian, Spanish, and Greeke Physitians, I have attained unto many worthy secrets.” He condemns other less experienced practitioners such as “tooth-drawers, Mathematical Fortune-tellers, and that rabble of women, which strut up and down with their skill in their pockets, which they purchased from the Chirurgions boy for some Garment trifle.” He was sceptical about magnetic dressings, and many other aspects of the Prussian doctors. No doubt his translation won him some extra clients.

[From A miraculous cure of the Prusian swallow-knife being dissected out of his stomack by the physitians of Regimonto, the chief city in Prusia (1642).]

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