December 5, 2011

Itching And Lethargy: Historic Causes Of Death?

Medical records contained in a Seventeenth century book are set to go on display in a new exhibition celebrating 350 years of book collecting at the Royal Society.

The medical records from John Graunt´s 1679 book, Natural and Political Observations “¦ Upon the Bills of Mortality, contain such information as people dying from lethargy, itch and fright. The book also reveals that more than 30,000 people in London died of consumption between 1647 and 1657.

The bills of mortality were lists of deaths occurring in the City of London and were produced on a weekly basis. Among the most odd of the findings, were the deaths of nine people in 1660, attributed to being “frighted” to death. Several people each year also died from “lethargy,” according to doctors who confirmed the deaths. In a twenty year period, more than 200 people also passed away from “grief,” and at least one person, in 1648, died from a case of an “itch.”

Another cause of death, “King´s Evil,” was considered a form of tuberculosis. About 20 deaths each year occurred from this plague, although Graunt noted that the myth that the condition accompanies ascendancies of Kings to the throne was “false, and seditious.”

“This exhibition marks the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society Library,”  said Keith Moore, head of library and archives at the Royal Society. “There are various books on display at our exhibition, which visitors can read just inches away from their nose, including the first edition of Darwin´s Origin of Species, inscribed ℠From the author℠.”

Other works that will appear on the exhibition include Isaac Newton´s handwritten corrections to Principia, his three-volume work addressing the laws of motion; and Kenelm Digby´s A Discourse Concerning the Vegetation of Plants, given to the Society in 1661. Digby´s donation marked the founding of the Royal Society´s library.


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