Down the hatch, without a scratch.

"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

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

Wikipedia page for Dr. Adolf Kussmaul

More about my novel, The Virgin Cure




This Week in Tweets

This Week in Tweets

Introducing…”This Week in Tweets.”

Occasionally I find a tweet (or two or three or more) in my Twitter stream that I feel merits a discussion that’s longer than 140 characters. From time to time I’ll round them up (along with my thoughts) and share them on Mutant Me. Welcome to the first edition of TWITs!

Ever find the statistics for CRC (and related cancer) risk in Lynchies to be overwhelming and difficult to understand? I discovered this excellent resource while exploring tweets from “Cancer Risks in Lynch Syndrome” lays everything out on the page in a tidy set of statistics organized by mutation, cancer type, gender (where applicable,) and age. AND, as an added bonus, they list the most common symptoms of colorectal, endometrial (uterine) and ovarian cancers at the end of the report. Vital information in a simple format. Thank you Kintalk! (Oh, and follow the link at the bottom of that page to “Managing Lynch Syndrome.” It’s not to be missed.)

Stop Colon Cancer Now has put together a helpful Myths vs. Facts list for colon cancer. A few of the myths were new (and surprising) to me… “colon cancer is a disease that only effects Caucasian males” and “all methods for colon cancer screening are equally effective,” while others were myths I’ve heard far too often, such as, “a polyp means cancer,” and “if I have colon cancer it means I’m dying.” There are eleven myths in all, and they’re disproved/addressed with straightforward answers. If you’re more of a visual learner, then here’s a nifty video presentation of the myths and facts. Five and a half minutes sums it all up, and it’s easily shareable too.

Those of you not in Canada may not be familiar with the CBC Radio show White Coat Black Art hosted by Dr. Brian Goldman. The weekly program covers a diverse range of topics and aims to “demystify medicine.” I’ve listened to it for years and was especially interested in the episode that aired November 15th, since it dealt with the ways in which celebrities approach illness when it comes to their very public lives. While the program didn’t deal with Lynch Syndrome, it did take a very human and discerning look at  the way celebrities talk about illness. Dr. Goldman interviewed Dr. Michele Berman and Dr. Mark Boguski, the husband and wife team behind “Celebrity Diagnosis” a web site that not only reports on celebrity illness in the news, but goes a step further to bring awareness and information about those illnesses to the general public.

Their work reminded me of earlier this year when Angelina Jolie published her now famous op-ed “My Medical Choice” in the New York Times in which she wrote about her decision to undergo a double mastectomy based on her discovery that she carried the BRCA1 mutation. That opinion piece and the public discussions that surrounded it, prompted me to go back and take a closer look at my own genetic testing results and my risk for endometrial cancer. (I’ll write more about what came of that re-evaluation in the days to come.)

In honor of the holiday spirit and the fostering of family ties, I’m posting the above tweet. I really appreciated Michelle Healy’s piece Talking Turkey about Health in USA Today encouraging people to take the advice of Surgeon General Boris Lushniak this holiday season. “Eat well, but do so in moderation. Take a brisk walk after dinner to burn off some extra calories. And before the day is over, spend time with your assembled family members and discuss the diseases and conditions that make up your family health history. Sharing that information can improve and possibly save lives.”

The article even includes a list of first steps to take in gathering and recording a family medical history, as well as links to forms that will help you organize your data. Awesome!If you’ve read my first blog post, Daughter of Family G, you’ll know that in my family’s case, keeping track of our medical histories has, without a doubt, saved and enriched many lives.

Happy Holidays to all!