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Books, Journals, New Media
April 1, 1998

Medical CuriositiesA Cabinet of Medical Curiosities

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorJonathan D.EldredgeMLS, PhD, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available


Copyright 1998 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.1998American Medical Association


by Jan Bondeson, 250 pp, with illus, $29.95, ISBN 0-8014-3431-9, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997.

JAMA. 1998;279(13):1041-1042. doi:10.1001/jama.279.13.1041-JBK0401-2-1

Dr Bondeson, an internist and rheumatologist, has prepared a thoroughly researched book covering a variety of medically related myths, mistakes, and abnormalities. Even the cover describes them as gruesome, but more often they are tales of primitive (but not ancient) beliefs and tricks played on innocent citizens, gullible clergy, and duped doctors. Many of the tales would make P. T. Barnum jealous but certain he was right that there is "one born every minute."

Subjects include bizarre beliefs (such as human spontaneous combustion) and erroneous interpretation of findings (such as elephant teeth being evidence of the existence of giants before the emergence of paleontology). A few are about actual medical phenomena, such as gigantism caused by a pituitary adenoma. Each story is thoroughly researched and told with rich detail. Many are fairly well known, such as the story of Mrs Toft, who claimed she was giving birth to rabbits (usually in parts, always dead on arrival) who fooled the Royal Anatomist to King George I and the Prince of Wales. Most are amusing and illustrative of the willing gullibility of people who should have known better. Mrs Toft's story illustrates the concept of "maternal impressions," women giving birth to abnormal fetuses because of something they witnessed during the pregnancy. (She had seen some rabbits she wanted to eat but couldn't catch.)

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