The bosom serpent

By Grant Jacobs 05/09/2013

Last night I was reading Alison’s latest post. In response to her blog post a commenter remarked that he was not acquainted with the “bosom-dwelling vipers” that Alison referred to in her piece, and remarked that he thought the bosom must be “a marginal ecological niche.”[1]


The bosom-dwelling vipers phrase is allegorical, from Aesop’s fable, but looking up it’s history I found in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine an article titled The bosom serpent. You’ll probably want to download and read the PDF copy – I found mucking around with the single pages a bit clumsy.

In it Bondeson recounts medical science’s (science?) encounters with beasts living within us.

Despite the title, the article is more about snakes—and a variety of other creatures—reported living in patients’ stomachs or intestines rather than emanating from their breasts. (Or, for that matter, sinking their fangs into them.)

The author starts with a Viking legend, moves on to snake-expelling saints (worthy men they must have been) and spends particular time on accounts of frogs living inside patients.

Frogspawn seems to have a particularly strong European history, even the renown Linnaeus—famed for his classification living things[2]—having

stated as a fact that frogspawn, left floating in the brooks and streams by the adult frogs, was a serious threat to the health of the Laplanders: if they drank this polluted water, the spawn adhered to the membranes of the stomach, which hereafter ‘formed the nest, or rather the pond, for these dreadful animals, which tear and torture the poor patient’

Medical history is full of these curiosities, of course, and they’re great reading.

A worthy example is that of the serving-girl of the parson of Dunfermline, whose doctor had given her a strong dose of calomel for stomach pain and constipation. This medicine had the desired effect, but she was greatly frightened by passing also a small lizard, which leaped out of the chamberpot and darted in under the drawers. When she pulled the animal out with a poker and flung it on the fire, it expired with a shrill squeak.

The most recent of these accounts is, at the time his piece was written, apparently from 1987[3] and seem to appear from time to time in modern-day newspapers. (No doubt of the lower standard tabloid kind.)

Enjoy it, it’s worth a read for the quirky stories. I found it helps to skim past a couple of passages that recite repeated reports of similar events; I feel for casual readers the text could be improved by dropping a few of the more common examples.

The author of article looks to be the same J. Bondeson who wrote a book I reviewed a few years back, Buried Alive. (A fun read, quirky stuff based on researching medical history.) The footnote to the ‘bosom serpent’ article indicates article is in fact is a condensed version of a book chapter, The Bosom Serpent, in Cabinet of Medical Curiosities published by Ithaca (Cornell University Press 1997:26-50) and a review at suggests to me that Buried Alive may have had it’s origins in another chapter from Cabinet of Medical Curiosities.


These stories are also perhaps a useful reminder not to cling too tightly to treasured notions and to question unlikely assumptions. There are modern-day human-dwelling serpents too, including an example from modern genetics that I might bring in an up-coming series I am working on, Not Just DNA. More on that series in a later article.

1. In an entirely unrelated matter, breast milk contains a number of bacterial species and so, in a sense, breast milk could be described as an ecological niche for these.

2. A key (if not the key) figure in founding taxonomy, he developed the genus-species name pair we still in use today. Today computational biologists (my field) compare genes, genomes and molecular structures to identify the evolutionary history of the different organisms, a field call phylogenetics. (A tree showing the evolutionary history of a collection of species is a phylogeny.)

3. I’d quote more, but the PDF is one of those where copying text drops the space characters, which you then have to manually re-insert; it’s just too much effort!

Other reading at Code for life:

Popularity does not mean effectiveness or sensibility

Map shows New Zealand with lowest death rate on earth in 1856, over 11 in 1000 dying

Scientific baking. Great for those lab meetings or kids’ parties.

Eye sci with my little eye

Book review: Buried Alive

0 Responses to “The bosom serpent”

  • I’d be tempted to note that your local body political scene in Hamilton seems like a nest of vipers!

    Also in this train of thought is Cleopatra who met her ending clasping a serpent to her bosom – clasping an asp and gasping her last, as they say.

  • Carol, in many ways it’s not the politicians themselves that are the issue (although I do disagree when someone says they’re not qualified to judge the science & then do so anyway); it’s the relentless outpouring of misinformation from anti-fluoride activists. Ken is documenting & commenting on this over at Open Parachute, on an ongoing basis.

  • Sure, Alison, no argument there. The antifluoride crowd are total shockers, and good for you and Ken for keeping on their case.

  • Just commented at Bioblog that you can read several chapters of “A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities” through Google Books Preview.

    I am disappointed that he did not mention Jepson & Gawsworth’s use of the them in their 1936 horror story, “The Shifting Growth”.

  • h.d.b. –

    Your comment over the way must still be under moderation 😉

    I was going to say the author was probably limiting themselves to events occurring in medical settings (or at least purported to have occurred in a medical setting), but then again why not include it? I’m not familiar with the story. Not generally a fan of horror to start with, let alone older works. Sad to say, I usually like my sci-fi to be hard sci-fi. (Finished Peter Watt’s Starfish a few days ago. Probably not worth a post as it’s old news, but these are now available on-line free from the author’s site.)

    On the subject of buying books, I’m toying with picking up a copy of Iain Pear’s An instance of the fingerpost. It seems to draw very divided opinions, some suggest Neal Stephenson does the historical science+politics+culture novels better.