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.”
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—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 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 goodreads.com 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: