History can be horrifying

Case in point: that time when human fat was a valuable commodity.

Whether procured from plant, animal, or human sources, in one form or another fat has been an important element in the European pharmacopoeia since ancient times. For reasons that are not quite clear, a medicinal interest in human fat was especially pronounced in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1543, the physician Andreas Vesalius instructed anatomists who boiled bones for the study of skeletons to carefully collect the layer of fat “for the benefit of the masses, who ascribe to it a considerable efficacy in obliterating scars and fostering the growth of nerves and tendons.” Vesalius knew what he was talking about. At the time, human fat was widely considered—and not just by “the masses”—to be efficacious in healing wounds, and was typically harvested from the recently deceased. In October 1601, after a particularly bloody battle during the Siege of Ostend, Dutch surgeons descended upon the battlefield to return with “bags full of human fat,” presumably to treat their own soldiers’ wounds.

Yikes. Let’s go kill some people, and then smear their bloody greasy bits on any injuries we might receive. I’d normally think that shooting medics was an evil act, but what do you do when you watch their doctors descend on your friendly fallen to rip out their guts?

Once you got home, you’d find there was an active trade in the bodies of executed criminals, and any other dead people they could get their hands on, to sell in the local drugstore.

The wise druggist kept large supplies of human fat (Axungia hominis) on hand alongside numerous other solids and liquids derived from human corpses, a class of materia medica known as “mummy.” If fortune smiled on the fat trade when the rate of executions increased, it would have been positively beaming during the Terror days of the French Revolution. According to some reports, certain Parisian butchers started offering their customers an exciting new item: graisse de guillotiné, supposedly procured from the corpses of the freshly executed.

I wonder if Walgreens has any in stock? In a capitalist economy, creating a demand for graisse de guillotiné might actually make billionaires worth something to humanity.

Happy Darwin Day?

I’m a big fan of Darwin, and think he made an important contribution to the world of science, but I also have to remind you all…NO HEROES. I go even further than Edna Mode. He said a few things we’d all rather forget.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that evolution made man “superior” to woman. For Darwin, that superiority largely played out in the intellectual and artistic realm. He wrote: “If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music—comprising composition and performance, history science and philosophy … the two lists would not bear comparison.” Spencer echoed Darwin’s sentiments and went further, postulating that in order for the human race to flourish, women must devote their lives to reproduction.

These assholish attitudes have afflicted science for a long, long time.

To compensate, everyone should go read that article about Antoinette Brown Blackwell.

Blackwell was among those grappling with science’s social implications. Reading works by scientists and social scientists such as Darwin and Spencer forced Blackwell to come to terms with her moral, religious and scientific beliefs. Just as Blackwell preached against Biblical passages that were at odds with her ethics, she began to write against scientific theories that she believed to be biased. Through her writing, she reconciled her understanding of science with her religious beliefs: “If one can perceive a truth,” she wrote, “it matters very little whether he got it at first hand from God’s book, or from man’s.”

Blackwell had no formal scientific training, which she freely admitted. But she read widely. Although she knew her critique of Darwin and Spencer—who she called “the great masters of science and scientific inference”—would be seen as presumptuous, she believed she had one qualification to address inequality of the sexes through evolution: she was a woman.

To refute Darwin and Spencer’s claims that the process of evolution made man superior to women, it was vital to Blackwell that women weigh in. Male scientists, Blackwell wrote, stood on “a learned masculine eminence, looking from their isolated male standpoints through their men’s spectacles and through the misty atmosphere of entailed hereditary glamour.”

In other words: Men, by virtue of being men, were biased, and so too were their scientific theories. And if women, such as herself, had little scientific training, so be it. “There is no alternative!” Blackwell exclaimed. “Only a woman can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint; and there are none but beginners among us in this class of investigations.”

Old encyclopedias are informative in new ways

The National Library of Scotland has made available to the public digitized versions of all 3 volumes of the 1771 edition of the Encyclopædia Brittanica. I’ve been browsing through it, and it’s a fun read — it doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about whether it’s a dictionary or an encyclopedia, but it does have long sections on 18th century agriculture, algebra, and chemistry, so if you ever want to know what people actually thought about those subjects over 200 years ago, you can look them up.

There isn’t much on the stuff I study though — biology hadn’t been invented yet, so you’ll search through the “B”s fruitlessly. I thought maybe there’d be something on embryology, but no, this is it, and it’s rather brutal. They were straightforward about abortion back then.

There is a substantial illustrated section on midwifery, though, so if you ever need to deliver a baby without anesthesia or sterile technique, but you do have a great big handy pair of kitchen tongs, this section will do it for you.

Incels strike again

There’s been another shooting by an incel, and when you read about the hateful stuff he actually believed, you will be surprised that anyone made it through life with that degree of bullshit festering in his head.

But then, read this account by a medievalist of the warped notion of “courtly love”, and you’ll notice this is an ancient and familiar trope. You’ll never be able to watch “Camelot” again.

Boaters & Bowlers

Speaking of time machines, here’s a video recording of a stroll through New York city in 1911.

A couple of things struck me: the hats! Everyone is wearing them, with the exception being the kids. I wonder if there was some sort of ritual associated with coming of age amongst the New Yorkians — “Now you are a man, and may and must wear this headdress at all times, lest ye scandalize the populace with the distressing dome of your skull.”

Also notice how the pedestrians just wander across the street on a whim, as if they haven’t yet realized that the steely horseless carriages are going to claim total ownership of the thoroughfares.

Hey, wait, maybe the hats are the secret passkey to allow one to ignore traffic. I’m going to have to try it next time I’m in NYC — put on a nice Panama and stride confidently into Times Square.

The ship’s not there any more

On 16 April 1834, the HMS Beagle was beached to inspect the hull for damage (click on that for more detail). The event was noted by this well-known engraving.

Charles Darwin noted the specific latitude and longitude in his notes, so we can actually go to Google maps and find the site, as I did.

I’m just wondering if anyone else would go to the link and zoom in the satellite photo and be vaguely disappointed that the Beagle isn’t there? Jeez, I need more coffee. Or maybe Google Time Machine.