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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Physical antipathies

< Once a Week (magazine)‎ | Series 1‎ | Volume 2




Every person reckons among his acquaintances individuals who are peculiarly "touchy" upon certain points. In an ordinary way it is plain-sailing enough with them; but just venture upon certain topics and they are "nowhere" in a moment. Pressure upon some hidden mental spring makes all sorts of secret drawers of the mind shoot out suddenly, to the amazement of the unconscious operator, and he will go away with a firm conviction that there is some screw loose in that particular quarter at least. Familiar as we are with mental peculiarities of this kind, there is a parallel range of physical ones, which are generally very little known. The physician who sounds the depths of our bodies, and knows how oddly the mucous membrane of one individual behaves, and what eccentricities are shown by the epidermis of another, is aware that this "too, too solid flesh" can have fads and fancies, tastes and dislikes, and show them, too, in a manner as decided and demonstrative as though the mental instead of the grosser organs were implicated. These physical idiosyncracies sometimes put on such extraordinary features, that we fear, in relating some of them, the reader will think we are romancing. For instance, he will readily assent to the old saying, that "what is one man's meat is another man's poison;" nevertheless, he will doubt our good faith when we tell him of a man being poisoned by a mutton chop. Dr. Prout, in his valuable work on the Stomach, however, relates just such a case. This individual, with a contumacious stomach, could not touch mutton in any form. It was at first supposed that this dislike arose from caprice; the meat was therefore disguised, and given to him in some unknown form, but with the invariable result of producing violent vomiting and diarrhœa: and from the severity of the effects, which were those of a virulent poison, there can be little doubt that if the use of mutton had been persisted in, his life would soon have been destroyed. Strange and irrational as this behaviour may appear to be, yet it is only a rather exaggerated example of stomachic capriciousness. Some persons cannot touch veal, others are prostrated by a few grains of rice. We happen to know an individual that is immediately seized with all the symptoms of English cholera if he takes as much as a single grain of rice. Such is his susceptibility to the presence of this article of food, that the most infinitesimal portions are instantly detected. Thus, for instance, having been seized with illness immediately after drinking beer, it was discovered that a grain or two had been introduced into the bottle for the purpose of giving it a head. Eggs are equally obnoxious to some individuals. Mr. Erasmus Wilson relates the case of a patient who was seized with a violent bowel complaint suddenly, without any apparent cause. Knowing, however, his proclivity to violent gastric irritation from touching eggs, he at once declared that he must have partaken of the obnoxious food. It could not be traced, however, until the cook acknowledged that she had glazed a pasty, of which he had partaken, with the white of an egg.

Shell-fish is well known to disarrange the digestive organs of some people. We happen to be acquainted with a lady who unfortunately partook of a lobster-salad for supper at a ball with the inconvenient result of almost immediately breaking-out into a rash over the face, neck, and arms. For this reason mussels, shrimps, and cockles cannot be touched by many individuals. In order to understand the immediate and extraordinary effect thus produced upon the skin in consequence of partaking of food irritating to the stomach, we must inform our reader that the lining of the whole digestive apparatus is only a continuation of the epidermis. Let us imagine a double night-cap, one end of which is thrust into the other, and we have at once the true idea of the relation the epidermis, or outside skin, has to the mucous membrane, or inside skin, which lines the stomach and intestines. With this explanation, it is easy to understand how it is that an irritating poison coming in contact with the stomach immediately tells its tale on the fair shoulders of the ball-room belle.

Results equally distressing, if not so unsightly, are produced in some individuals without the introduction to the stomach of articles of food or medicine. Floating particles in the air are sometimes sufficient to produce all the symptoms of spasmodic asthma. We once knew a dispenser who could not stop in the room with an unstoppered bottle of ipecacuanha. Even if it were opened thirty or forty feet away out of his sight, he was instantly aware of the fact, in consequence of the sudden seizures to which he was liable. We have heard of an old lady, residing in Holborn, who at times was subjected to sickness and vomiting in the most sudden and unaccountable manner. At last her physician, suspecting some atmospheric influence, made inquiries, and found out that a room on the ground-floor, at the back of the house, was used as a dispensary, whence the emanations from the ipecacuanha penetrated to her apartments on the second-floor front.

There is a very distressing complaint, popularly known as the hay-asthma, which affects a certain small proportion of the population. At the season of hay-making, these individuals are suddenly seized with what appears to be a very bad influenza—running at the nose, sneezing, coughing, and in some cases a most violent irritation of all the mucous surfaces, the eye-lids, and the air-passages, and the nose swelling in the most extraordinary manner. We have seen individuals quite blind for a time from this cause. Persons so affected can only find relief by immediately retreating from the vicinity of the hay-fields. The Duke of Richmond, for instance, who is particularly susceptible to the influence of hay asthma, retreats every hay-making season to Brighton, to avoid his well-known enemy. Floating vegetable particles of the seed of the grass are the cause of this extraordinary affection. That these travel a long distance is clear, inasmuch as persons susceptible to their influence feel uneasy even within a mile or two of hay-fields. We know a gentleman, living in the Bloomsbury district, who is rendered very uneasy in the hay season when the wind is from the north or north-east, but is quite well when it shifts to the west. The explanation of this circumstance lies in the fact, that the open fields where hay is made lie so much nearer to him in the former direction than in the latter, the intervening mass of houses towards the west acting as a kind of disinfectant as far as his own peculiar susceptibility to hay emanations are concerned. There are animal emanations, however, which appear to affect some almost as energetically as these vegetable ones. The atmosphere of cats, for instance, is intolerable to them. We have heard of a military gentleman who would sometimes become suddenly and violently agitated during dinner, so much so that his speech left him, and he seemed on the verge of an apoplectic seizure. His friends, however, knew what this meant, and immediately began searching for the cat, which was sure to be found in some part of the room, although before unobserved. To other individuals the presence of rabbits is equally obnoxious, they seem to catch cold merely from going near them, and all their symptoms are greatly augmented if they happen to stroke them down. We have lately heard of two individuals of the same family who are affected in the same manner from the same cause: some people we know cannot sit in the same room with a cheese, others are obliged to retire before the presence of cooked hare.

Mr. Nunn, one of the surgeons of the Middlesex Hospital, who has given some very curious instances of idiosyncracies with respect to food and medicine, in the British Medical Journal, states that he has found that honey-comb has produced in a patient swelling of the tongue, frothing of the mouth, and blueness of the fingers; that figs produced formication of the palate and fauces, and that the dust of split peas have the effect, upon some persons, of hay-fever. A very singular example related by him of the effect of touch, is that of a gentleman, who could not endure the sensation produced by the handling of a russet apple. We have been informed of another singular instance of the excitability of the epidermis. For instance, a lady who immediately cries involuntarily on the addition of any mineral acid to the water in which she is bathing her feet; and of a gentleman in whom a severe attack of spasmodic asthma is immediately induced by the application of cold water to his instep.

We have hitherto dwelt merely upon certain idiosyncratic susceptibilities to certain articles of medicine, food, and animal emanations. The disease, spasmodic asthma, just alluded to, as to its effects is so nearly allied to many of those related, that there can be no doubt they arise from a common cause, irritating particles floating in the air, or atmospheric influences. A man goes to bed perfectly well, and awakens in the night with a difficulty of breathing, which threatens to suffocate him; after a while it goes off, but if he remains in the same place he is always liable to a recurrence of the fit. Dr. Hyde Salter, who has devoted much attention to this capricious disease, gives it as his experience that change of air, as in hay-asthma, is the only cure for this distressing complaint. As a general rule, those persons who are affected in pure country air, invariably find relief, or rather complete immunity from attack, in the moist air of dense cities, whilst city asthmatics will become instantly well in the dry pure air of the country. Dr. Salter relates a most singular couple of cases illustrative of this extraordinary capriciousness. One patient could only breathe in Norwood, the other only in London. If the one who could live at Norwood attempted to go to London, he was invariably stopped by a seizure of asthma at Camberwell Green. If, on the other hand, the patient who was exempt in London, attempted to go to Norwood, he found Camberwell Green the limit of his journeying—if he passed this his enemy immediately attacked him. Camberwell Green was their joint difficulty, and will remain so to the end.

Many persons who come up from the country for the "best advice" for this complaint, find that in town they suddenly lose their asthma, and are somewhat disappointed that they cannot show their doctor the effect of a fit upon them. In many cases, however, they learn that the true doctor is city air—the worst city air, moreover, is generally the best for them. Thames Street atmosphere is particularly efficacious, and some even pick out the foggiest, densest, foulest lanes of Lambeth or Bermondsey as to them the balmiest, most life-giving of neighbourhoods. There are more extraordinary instances of idiosyncratic susceptibilities on the part of the air-tubes of some persons than even those examples would imply. For instance, some asthmatics can live at the top of a street in perfect health, whilst at the bottom of the same street they seem to be at the last gasp. We happened to know of a patient, who is more dead than alive at the top of Park Lane, but recovers immediately at the bottom of the same street; and Dr. Watson tells us, that he had an asthmatic patient who could sleep very well in the Red Lion, at Cambridge, but could never rest for a minute, on account of his asthma, in the Eagle in the same town.

Some asthmatics, with air-tubes more capricious and difficult to please than ordinary, make it the business of their lives to travel about in search of the air best suited to them. Thus, in their wanderings, they experience every conceivable degree of exasperation of, or exemption from, their disease; possibly in some lovely spot where the patient would willingly abide as in an earthly Eden, the asthma suddenly and rudely grips him by the throat and bids him depart or die. Journeying onward he may happen to come upon some barren ridge, or possibly upon that Plutonic region, known as the "Black Country." Here the patient would hurry onward with horror and affright, but suddenly his tyrant interposes. This air suits him, it imperiously cries, and here the slave of irritable mucus membrane is but too glad to end his pilgrimage, compounding with dreary scenery and a savage people, for the perfect freedom of drawing the breath of life. M. D.