opposites trivia roundup

Reminder that today is the 96th anniversary of the Boston molasses flood. May their high-viscosity souls rest in peace. In the meantime, enjoy an opposites trivia roundup.

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1. Tarrare (1772-1798) was a French gastronomical oddity with a hunger so intense his parents kicked him out of the house as a teenager because they couldn’t afford to feed him. He fell in with a group of bandits, then got a “job” as, essentially, a circus performer. Either out of apathy or desperation, Tarrare did not limit his intake to food: he’d eat anything and everything, including corks, stones, and whole live animals, on stage or not. None of these had any apparent ill effects.

When war broke out, Tarrare was conscripted, but found the rations lacking. He stole food and snuck away to eat trash or scraps from the gutter or hunt down feral animals. Hoping to take advantage of his unusual gustatory habits, one officer planned to use Tarrare as a courier—he’d swallow documents, travel to the recipient, and then …ahem… “produce” them. Unfortunately he was captured before completing his first delivery (I won’t tell you how he managed to keep the note from falling into enemy hands, but use your imagination).

Doctors could not find the limits of his appetite. He ate a meal intended for 15, tried to drink the blood of other patients, and once ate an entire eel without chewing. He was then forced to flee the hospital when a toddler went missing and he was suspected of consuming the erstwhile child. Tarrare died four years later of—get this—consumption.

Also unclear is the cause of his food mania. One wrench in the works is that late 18th-century France is basically the source of all historical supereaters, of which there are precious few. Tarrare’s contemporary Charles Domery ate five pounds of grass a day when he couldn’t get real food or live animals. Doctors once fed him sixteen pounds of raw cow udder, beef parts, and tallow candles in one day; he ate it all and never evacuated his bowels: “When his throat is dry from continued exercise, he lubricates it by stripping the grease off the candles between his teeth…”


One speculation is that the relentless appetite owed to damage to a small part of the amygdala, which is generally thought to control emotional responses (there’s at least some evidence that it may also help control appetite). I have a crazy theory: some rare environmental toxin at the time targeted those appetite-controlling amygdala neurons and led to polyphagia, which is why there is an apparent “cluster” of cases at nearly the same time and place. This isn’t entirely implausible: overdoses of vitamin B6 target the dorsal root ganglia and lead to loss of proprioception. Then again, maybe it’s down to dumb luck and bad gag reflexes.

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2. Undereating, of course, has long been a political and religious act. Medieval Ireland, for example, was governed by a civil law called Senchus Mor. One provision of that law allowed complainants to fast—literally—on the doorstep of the defendant. Should the complainant starve to death, the doorstep-owner would be forced to compensate the deceased’s family. A similar doorstep law was also in place in parts of India until 1861.

Then there’s fasting for religious purposes, because sometimes a hairshirt just isn’t enough. Dangerous, long-term fasting was common enough among middle ages nuns to have its own name: anorexia mirabilis“miraculous lack of appetite.” This book—which I have not read but looks great—argues that fasting nuns, the “fasting girls” of Victorian England, and modern anorexia nervosa all stem from the same underlying pathology that is manifested in different ways, shaped by cultural conventions.

Some religious food avoidance is less flagellant and more about moonbeams and mysticism. Take August Engelhardt, for example: a German who founded a sun-worshipping cult, the primary behavioral component of which was cocoivorism, an all-coconut diet that would lead man to a state of immortality and diarrhea.

you'll never know if you don't try
you’ll never know if you don’t try

Engelhardt’s contemporary, Arnold Ehret, held that the one true diet should consist of “mucus-less” foods: nuts, starchless vegetables, and greens—though he was German and used the word schleimlose, meaning slime-free. Like Engelhardt, Ehret believed one could commune with god through proper diet and fasting, and also regular colonic irrigation. He also proved the virtue of fasting and colon blows with the mathemtical formula Vitality = Power – Obstruction. It was not peer-reviewed. Ehret also marketed a laxative called Innerclean.

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3. Med students 50 years ago probably learned that the first person to describe the circulation of blood through the heart was William Harvey, in 1628. Some texts might have mentioned Michael Servetus, a 16th-century religious scholar/heretic who described pulmonary circulation in the middle of a scathing anti-Calvin theological treatise. But almost certainly unmentioned was Ibn al-Nafis, the Arab physician who scooped them by, oh, a few centuries.


In the 100s, the Greek physician Galen argued that blood passed from one ventricle to the other by seeping through invisible pores. This passed for medical canon in the Christian world for 1400 years. al-Nafis (1210-1288) was a legal scholar, philosopher, ophthalmologist, and the Sultan’s personal physician; he was also optimistic enough to undertake writing a 300-volume encyclopedia (spoiler: he didn’t finish). His scholarly work describing the circulation—not seeping—of blood through the heart was lost for centuries until being rediscovered in 1924. This was part of the oft-glossed-over Islamic Golden Age of science, which was basically the enlightenment without the benefits of an historical PR campaign.

al-Nafis was also a novelist, who worked his medical knowledge and religious beliefs into the immaculately named Theologus Autodidactus, which lays claim to being an early example of science fiction, coming-of-age, and desert island stories. Here’s part of the summary: “The protagonist of the story is Kamil, an autodidactic adolescent feral child who is spontaneously generated in a cave and living in seclusion on a deserted island.” Well, so, yes I guess that is all three of those things. Eventually people are marooned on the island, then bring Kamil back to “civilized” society, where his self-learned knowledge is at odds with the modern world. And then the apocalypse happens.

Further reading here.

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4. In the 1830s, leeches were an endangered species in France—because they were using more than 40 million every year for medicinal purposes. Medicinal leech use dates back to at least 1400 BC, and the practice of bloodletting is even older, perhaps second only to language as a cultural human universal. Medicine was so bound up in religion, and sickness so bound up in bad spirits, that it only made sense to give those spiritual interlopers an exit from the body and/or to give your excessive humor somewhere to go. Bloodletting could treat virtually everything, so long as you followed complex rules about time, place, lunar cycles, which direction you faced, how long you bled, what body part got stuck, and assorted other byzantine (and perhaps literally Byzantine) rules: “in the spring and autumn we draw blood by opening a vein in such as are subject to spitting of blood, quinsy, pleurisy, falling sickness, apoplexy, madness, gout.”

By the middle ages, bloodletting was so common that people of means regularly visited the “flebotomaria” (bleeding house) for prophylactic blood loss. By 1163, the church, which claimed to “abhor” bloodletting, banned clergy from performing the practice. Despite thinking it had medical benefits, physicians didn’t want to do it, because the penalty for malpractice was being murdered by a feudal lord. This game of hemo-hot-potato was largely the impetus for the rise of “barber-surgeons” and the continuing delineation between doctors and surgeons. The striped barbershop pole dates to this split: the red stripes represent blood, the white represents bandages, and the pole represents the stick squeezed by the patient to dilate their veins.

deploy the scarificator
deploy the scarificator

Bloodletting didn’t really fall out of favor until the end of the 19th century. Even by the 1850s medical texts were still recommending it to treat a laundry list of more than 100 ailments including acne, gout, herpes, indigestion, and insanity. To treat the throat infection that killed him, George Washington was relieved of almost four liters of blood in less than a day. Charles II had a seizure, then was immediately bled for 24 ounces of red gold. Then he was given diuretics and purgatives; probably the treatment was worse than the cure. Not everyone took kindly to it: Lord Byron called his bloodletting doctors “a damned set of butchers.” As “evidence-based medicine” took over for…I don’t know, I guess “intuition-based medicine” in the 18th century, bloodletting was shown the door. And yet father of American medicine William Osler’s definitive medical text from 1923 still recommended it.

Since certain ailments, such as hemochromatosis, can actually be improved by bloodletting, it seems that it took ~2 millennia for the practice to reach the endpoint of the “conventional wisdom / backlash / counter-backlash” cycle which is now completed within 12 hours on Twitter. Recommended reading here.

Side note: “Bloodstopping” is an Appalachian folk practice holding that bleeding could be halted by walking east and reciting Ezekiel 16:6.

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5. “Götz” von Berlichingen, a/k/a Götz of the Iron Hand, was a 16th-century German knight. He lost his right arm in 1504, fashioned a functional iron prosthetic—hence the name—and went right on knighting. The hand is now in a museum. Gotz later turned up as an existentialist character in one of Sartre’s plays, and Goethe wrote an autobiographical play about him, in which he was attributed the expletive/euphemism now called the Swabian salute: er kann mich im Arsche lecken (“he can lick my arse”). Genuine hero.

Gotz's hand
Gotz’s hand

6. The opposite of Iron Hand is possibly Galvarino, a Mapuche warrior captured by the invading Spanish. They cut off his hands and released him, presumably as a warning to others. Rather than take a breather, Galvarino fashioned a set of knife hands and dove right back in. Knife hands. The Mapuche did eventually beat back the Spanish, though it took about 60 years.

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