Down the hatch, without a scratch.

February 22, 2014 in family history, medical history by Ami McKay

"Champion Sword Swallower" - attributed to Neiman Eisman

“Champion Sword Swallower” – attributed to Neiman Eisman

Happy World Sword Swallower’s Day!

Two important threads have run throughout my work as a writer in recent years. One is my passion for exploring stories that are inspired by events or movements in medical history, and the other is my admiration and respect for sideshow folk. While writing my play, “Jerome, the Historical Spectacle” (which features a traveling band of Victorian sideshow performers) I also began the research for writing my second novel, “The Virgin Cure.” The novel contains a character based on my great great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda, who in real life became the first female physician to be accepted into any medical society in the United States. In the novel, “Dr. Sadie” is friend to dime museum owner Mr. Thadeus Dink who also runs a theatre and sideshow on the premises. One scene in the book depicts Dr. Sadie visiting the museum’s resident sword swallower,  Miss Eva who is suffering from a case of “sword throat.” (Thanks to Google and some helpful tweets from two amazing present-day sword swallowers, Dan Meyer and Lady Aye, I was able to get the details right.)

Edith Cliftord depicted on a card from Messers Chewing Gum (circa 1910)

Edith Clifford depicted on a card from Messers Chewing Gum (circa 1910)

Dr. Kussmaul’s rigid endoscope

Imagine my wonder and surprise when my research further revealed that there was an even greater connection between the art of sword swallowing and the history of medicine…

In 1868 Dr. Adolph Kussmaul (on the recommendation of his colleague, Dr. Mueller) carefully observed a sword swallower paying special attention to the way he positioned his head for the passage of a long straight sword. Impressed with what he’d witnessed, he then decided to examine the sword swallower himself.

“For this purpose, he had a local instrument maker fashion tubes 47 cm long and 13 mm in diameter, one being round and the other elliptical in design, the tubes fitted with conical wooden mandarins to facilitate insertion. Using the straight tube, mirrors and a gasoline lamp, Kussmaul inspected the esophagus and the fundus of the stomach, thereby performing the first successful esophagoscopy/esophagogastrostomy on a sword swallower.The sword swallower tolerated the long tubes well, but the examination was disappointing because the light was too weak to illuminate the field so far from its source. Also, despite washing out the stomach, fluid constantly collected around the tube and hindered the view. After considerable experimentation, Kussmaul and Müller managed to improve the light of their endoscope, and subsequently examined a number of patients. Kussmaul was so pleased with his success that he took the sword swallower with him to perform demonstrations in various clinics, and later enlisted other sword swallowers due to their ability to voluntarily relax the cricopharyngeal muscle and form a straight line from the pharynx to the stomach, allowing passage of the rigid endoscope. Today Kussmaul is recognized as being the developer of the first rigid endoscope.” – from the History of Sword Swallowing at Swordswallow.com

Those with or without Lynch syndrome who have benefited from the procedure we know today as endoscopy owe their thanks to a curious, ingenious doctor and a brave and willing sword swallower. “Down the hatch without a scratch!”

Here’s Lady Aye in action during an appearance on the show, “Oddities.”

And here’s Dan Meyer, President of Sword Swallowers Association International accepting the 2007 “Ig Nobel Prize” in Medicine with Dr. Brian Witcombe, Radiologist at Gloucester Royal Hospital, for their medical research on sword swallowing injuries. The collaboration between sword swallowers and medical researchers continues!

Notes: For more information about the research conducted by Meyer and Witcombe (and 46 SSAI volunteers) read this excellent Scientific American Article by Jennifer Ouellette. “By the Sword.”

The official declaration of World Sword Swallowers Day 2014 at SSAI

For more history on the art of sword swallowing go to SwordSwallow.com

Wikipedia page for Dr. Adolf Kussmaul

More about my novel, The Virgin Cure