Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Chapter 10,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 249-283 (This material may be protected by copyright)


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[page 249:]

Chapter X

Medicine

In one sense, medicine was more important to Poe than any other science. His own illnesses and the long disheartening malady of his wife Virginia(1) made him keenly aware of disease and its effect on mankind. As a boy, he may have heard his foster mother, Mrs. Frances Allan, complain of headaches whim seen Richmond doctors visiting her. The illness and death of Mrs. Stanard when he was hardly a youth affected him deeply, and perhaps served to etch into his consciousness thoughts on the limitations of medical science. His sister Rosalie was not well, and his brother William Henry Leonard Poe slowly faded and finally died of tuberculosis. His mother had suffered the same fate. During his early years in Baltimore, Edgar Allan lived with this brother and perhaps observed the effects of the disease Which later he pictured as destroying the characters of some of his own [page 250:] short stories. In his youth and in his later years, Poe experienced severe illness which formed the pattern of sickness fictionized in his later literary masterpieces. Ironically, he was an unusually capable athlete as a youth, but in adult life beginning with his stay in Baltimore the ills of its body served to aggravate his already sensitive mind. At least once when he was a youth he became so ill with a cold that he said he would not recover,(2) and in later life he had cholera. No one can say exactly what affect his own illnesses and those of his friends and family had on his writing, but it is probable that such sicknesses are the source of much of Poe’s knowledge of medicine.

In the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century, medicine was just beginning to be scientific. At the close of the eighteenth century there were only four medical shcools [[schools]] the country,(3) and chose that grew up in the nineteenth century often suffered growing pains.(4) Many American medical students, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, still went to Europe to study medicine; others learned it in the office of an old practitioner. Medical science advanced, nevertheless, particularly in New York and Philadelphia and try a less extent in Baltimore. By 1848, according to the ‘Report of re Committee on Medical Literature,” headed by Oliver Wendell [page 251:] Holmes, there were twenty medical journals published in the United States,(5) and several foreign ones were reprinted here.(6) Holmes complained of the indolence and neglect of American medicine.(7) He blamed American doctors for too much dependence on European publications. The formation of the American Medical Association in 1847 was the climax to efforts of American doctors to bring American medicine out of its informal beginnings to professional order.

In Poe’s day the laymen had less difficulty in reading medical literature than he would have today, for the study was not so highly technical as it is now. Certain doctors delivered popular lectures on medical subjects, and many of them, like Charles C. Caldwell, the elder John Eaten Cooke, and Pliny Earle, were writers as well as physicians. Medicine was then more of a lay subject than it is in the twentieth century.

In 1825, the year before Poe entered the University of Virginia, there were twenty students in the school of Medicine of that institution,(8) and perhaps he talked to some of them when he attended the University. Because those were the days when the students sometimes supplied their awn cadavers for study,(9) perhaps he then found subjects of conversation congenial to one thinking about the writing of startling stories. In 1825 Dr. Robley Dunglison, who later was to become one of the nation’s prominent physicians and [page 252:] writers on medical subjects, began teaching anatomy and medicine there.(10) No record is available that Poe knew him, but the youth would have had an opportunity to learn something of medicine if he so desired. More than once in his writings he introduces medical students.

His first published story, “Metzengerstein,” contains a paragraph on consumption,(11) and from that time on there are many stories in which Poe shows a knowledge of the disease. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” first published in July of 1845, uses as the principal actor a man near death from the same ailment. His use of the materials of medical science extended throughout his writing career. His general comments, as well as his poems and stories, demonstrate the fact.

Several references to medical subjects appear in his works of the 1830s. In 1836 he comments: “Let us grant that in many of the abstract sciences. . . that even in Theology, in Medicine, in Law, in Oratory, in the Mechanical Arts, we Americans have no competitors whatever. . . .”(12) A Richmond doctor, [page 253:] Robert W. Haxall, won a prize offered by the Boylston Medical Committee of award University; and his prize-winning essay, “A Dissertation on the Importance of Physical Signs in the Various Diseases of the Abdomen and Thorax,” was reviewed in the October, 1836, issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, probably by Poe.(13) It shows a general knowledge of medicine such as an intelligent layman like him might have had. It discusses the “Pathology of Fever,”(14) a subject of interest to him and mentions the work of M. Pierre Louis,(15) whose work on phthisis had appeared in 1825.(16) In “Ligeia,” first published in the American Museum for September, 1838, the narrator mentions his “no little medical reading.”(17)

Similar references are found in his work appearing in the 1840s. A footnote to Chapter II of “The Journal of Julius Rodman published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for February, 1840, indicates further interest is medical science:

The positive experience of an American surgeon, however, who had an opportunity of witnessing, and experimenting upon, the digestive process through an open wound in the stomach of a patient, has demonstrated that [page 254:] bulk is, in itself, an essential in this process, and that consequently the nutritive property of food, involves in a great measure, a paradox. — Eds. G. M. (18)

This passage refers to Dr. William Beaumont and his patient Alexis St. Martin, about whom the doctor published a book in 1833.(19) The case did attract considerable notice and contributed to knowledge of the digestive process.

In 1841 Poe comments apropos of a new novel by the author or The Diary of a London Physician, “The bodily health is a point of absolutely universal interest and was made the basis of all the excitement in that very popular but shamefully ill-written publication.”(20) His review of Barnaby Rudge contains the following: “The stain upon Barnaby’s wrist, caused by fright in the mother at so late a period of gestation as one day before mature parturition, is shockingly at war with all medical experience.”(21) Poe, the author who believes in verisimilitude and who is conscious of his scientific knowledge, characteristically says none day before mature parturition” instead of the less technical one day before the child was born.

Toward the close of 1841 and the opening of 1842 he ccntinued his series of sketches in autography, and in them gave brief notice to friends and mplaintances who were physicians. In December of 1841 he writes of Dr. Pliny Earle, of Frankford, Pennsylvania: “He has . . . distinguished himself [page 255:] by several works of medical and general science. . . “(22) Dr. Earle was one of the leading American physicians of his day in the study of the treatment of insanity. Dr. J. K. Mitchell (1798-1858), a minor literary figure in his own right and a medical writer,(23) also appears in Poe’s autographical sketches.(24) There are also brief sketches “of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, of Boston, late Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Dartmouth College,”(25) “Dr. James McHenry, of Philadelphia,”(26) and Dr. J. Evans Snodgrass,(27) the friend who was destined to attend Poe in his final illness. Although his concern with these men in his autograph series is not primarily with their work in medicine, it is pertinent that he knew and knew about a number of mdical men of his day.

Still other works by Poe mention medical men. By way of emphasizing the point that the Prefect of police must pay for advice from Dupin in “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin relates “the story they tell of Abernethy,”(28) the famous British surgeon John Abernethy (1764-1831).(29) And the narrator [page 256:] of “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” speaks of his “medical friends “(30)

A few references in the Broadway Journal, further demonstrate Poe’s use of medical material. The April 20, 1845, issue reviews William A. Guy’s Principles of Forensic Medicine.(31) The issue of June 21, 1845, contains a longer review(32) probably written by Poe. The following note in the Broadway Journal of November 1, 1845, adds further proof(33) that he knew of the London Lancet: “Messrs. B. rurgess S. [tringerl , & Co. (of New Yorki have rendered a very important service to the medical world of America in re-publication of this — the most authoritative medical serial in existence.”(34)

In his “Literati” sketch of Dr. John W. Francis,(35) published in 1846, Poe exhibits further knowledge of medical research and names two well-known medical man David Hosack(36) and Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Hosack is important in medical history of the United States; Liebig, in that of the world. The following excerpt from the sketch of Dr. Francis indicates some- thing of Poe’s knowledge of medical science: [page 257:]

Doctor Francis, although by no means a littereteur, cannot well be omitted in an account of the New York literati. In his capacity of physician and medical lecturer he is far too well known to need comment. He was the pupil, friend and partner of Hossack — the pupil of Abernethy — connected in some manner with everything that has been well said or done medicinally in America. As a medical essayist he has always commanded the highest respect and attention. Among the points he has made at various times, I may mention his Anatomy of Drunkenness, his views of the Asiatic Cholera, his Analysis of the Avon waters of the state, his establishment of the comparative immunity of the constitution from a second attack of yellow fever, and his pathological propositions on the changes wrought in the system by speci-fiapoisons through their assimilation — propositions remarkably sustained Ana enforced by recent discoveries of Liebig.(37)

During his career as a writer, Poe shows a more than ordinary use of medical science, as the citations just given show. But that is not all. In some of his stories and in at least one of his poems, medical lore is integral. In his writings,he displays a knowledge of anatomy, fevers, catalepsy and epilepsy, as well as some other bodily ills and of the treatments for some of them. To the writer and to the man,(38) medical science was important.

A few citations will illustrate Poets knowledge of anatomy and his use of technical medical terms instead of general words. in a review of Walsh’s Didactics, he writes: “. . . a quiet, pungent, sly, laughter-moving conceit, which, at first stirring the finest membranes of your pericardium, at length sets you out into a broad roar of laughter.. “(39) A less technically minded writer probably would merely have said “at first stirring the region of the heart” or something similar. But Poe knew that the pericardium is a [page 258:] membranous sac enclosing the heart, and worked the information into a review. In describing Maelzel’ s automaton chess-player, he writes: “Every cavity, apophysis, and curvature was imitated and each bone executed its proper movements.”(40) Again he uses a technical term: apophysis.

In that unpleasant story of a synthetic man, “The Man That Was Used Up,” he employs medical terms as follows:

I could not imagine a more graceful curve than that of the os femoris, and there was just that due gentle prominence in the rear of the fibula which goes to the conformation of a properly proportioned calf.(41)

One thinks that perhaps he would have been better understood if he had used thigh bone for os femoris and doubts whether the word fibula adds anything to the picture he is trying to create. But anatomical detail is an essential part in the building up of Brevet Brigadier General John B. C. Smith — that “large and exceedingly odd looking bundle of something”(42) whose synthesis into a fully equipped person is described in the story.(43)

In enumerating the injuries to the mother of Mademoiselle L’Espanaye, a physician asserts: “The left tibia much splintered, as well as all the ribs of the left side. In emphasizing the difficulty of killing a brown bear, Poe writes technically again: “. . .the brains, and these are defended [page 259:] by two large muscles covering the side of the forehead, as well as by a aroJection of thick frontal bone.”(45) He is aiming at an appearance of realism that the technical terms may augment.

Poe’s anatomical descriptions are accurate but contribute little if an thing to the understanding of the lay reader who peruses the works in which they appear. One can speculate that he had two reasons for employing them: perhaps he enjoyed using his medical knowledge or displaying it, and second, he very probably supposed that the technical medical, terms gave his writings essir of authenticity and added to the verisimilitude he sought.

Poe manifested considerable interest in febrile diseases, as did many educated people of his day. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the term fever was used to cover a variety of undifferentiated.ailments, and he writes of the subject in a general sense a number of times.

The man of the crowd his story of the same name is the victim of a ever. His narrator mentions: “. . .the lurking of an old fever in my system rendering the moisture somewhat too dangerously pleasant.”(46) Perhaps the lurking ailment was malaria, which in Poe’s day was defined as miasm(47) and which was not well understood until a half century after his death.(48) Monos, in another of his stories, experienced what most people call death as the result of a nameless fever.(49) Poe does not explain the kind; [page 260:] it is unnecessary for him to do so in the story. And “Life in Death opens with a long paragraph describing the narrator as suffering from a fever “excessive and of long duration.”(50) The paragraph, omitted in the later version entitled “The Oval Portrait,” then describes the narrator’s attempt to cause the temperature to abate by taking opium. Hers the febricity is used by the author in an effort to make plausible the peculiar effect of the reit on the narrator.

Ligeia becomes emaciated and dies of an unnamed affliction.(51) “Ligeia grew ill,”(52) the story states. Then the author writes of her wild eyes that blaze “with a too — too glorious effulgence,” “the pale fingers,” “The blue veins upon the lofty forehead.(53) The beauty of a woman in illness appeals to the tale-writer, just as the death of a beautiful woman fascinates the poet. Ligeia’s fever is probably due to tuberculosis of the lungs. In the same story, Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, is “attacked idth sudden illness,” which is also nameless. The recurrence of this illness, which is accompanied by fever,(54) gradually creates in her a hyper-sensitivity to sounds, of which the artist makes skilful use in the long [page 261:] climactic scene.(55)

In “Ligeia,” which Poe at one time thought the best of his tales, the deal lore is used effectively for artistic embellishment. The two illnesses are an organic part of the story. Without them it would fall to pieces. His description of the physical effects of the illnesses on the two women, and his portrayal of Ligeials character as her death approaches artistic achievements.

Also in his poems he speaks of fever. One of them, “For Annie,” ome from his personal experience. It is hard to distinguish between pieal fever and fever of the spirit in such lines as the following:

The moaning and groaning,

The sighing and sobbing,

Are quieted now,

With that horrible throbbing

At heart: — ah, that horrible,

Horrible throbbing!

The sickness — the nausea —

The pitiless pain

Have ceased, with the fever

That maddened my brain —

With the fever called “Living”

That burned in my brain. (ll. 19-30)

In his “Spirits of the Dead” the poet tells the spirits that the red orbs of the stars, without beam,shall seem to their weariness [page 262:]

As a burning and a fever

Which would cling to thee forever. (ll. 17-18)

Elsewhere Poe speaks of fever in a purely figurative way to suggest ambition, excitement, mental torture. Probably when he gives a literal or figurative meaning to the word fever, he draws directly on his own unhappy experiences.

His short stories show a more than ordinary use of catalepsy. The age is probably two-fold. First, catalepsy was considered a very rare disease — so rare that many of the medical books of the day do not mention it. Others, like Tomlinson Fort’s A Dissertation on the Practice of Medicine, etc., contain statements like this one by Fort: “It occurs so rarely, that many have disputed its existence.”(56) A second reason for his interest in catalepsy probably is that it was pre-eminently the disease which would put a person — a beautiful woman for Poe — into a state of trance such that her condition might be mistaken for death and she might than be buried alive.(57)

Several of Poe’s women characters, beautiful young women, withered away under a similar disease. In “Berenice,” he writes:

Among the numerous train of maladies superinduced by that fatal and primary one which effected a revolutior of so horrible a kind in the moral and phy-deal being of my cousin, may be mentioned as the most distressing and obstinate in its nature, a she of epilepsy not unfrequently terminating in [page 263:] a trance itself trance. very nearly resembling positive dissolution, and from which her manner of recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt.(58)

In his later stories, some women experience catalepsy not epilepsy as Berenice did; but the trance (italicized by Poe) is the condition of the disease that apparently fascinated him, and trance is the distinguishing characteristic of catalepsy, whereas it is only an occasional accompaniment of epilepsy.(59) It is the suspended animation, not the convulsions of epilepsy, that interests Poe, and in his later stories his heroines suffer from epilepsy. Perhaps his knowledge of medicine grew between 1835 (“Berenice”) and 1839 (“The Fall of the House of Usher”).

“Berenice is his first story to make extensive use of a young woman in an epileptic trance. Published in March of 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger, it foreshadows his later interest in metempsychosis, personal identity, a withering disease, and the death-like trance. Both principal characters, youthful cousins, are diseased — the narrator in mind, Berenice in body. She suffers from “a fatal disease” — perhaps phthisis which “fell like a simoom upon her frame.”(60) The disease brings such great physical change to her that the very identity of her person is disturbed. In contemplating this transformation of his lover, the narrator fixes his mania on her teeth in a morbid nervousness. After the narrator marries her, she is again seized with epilepsy and taken for dead, Prepared for burial, and [page 264:] buried. The mood of the revolting conclusion of the story is created by medical paraphernalia — “a little box. . .the property of the family Physician”(61) and “instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances.”(62)

The various elements in “Berenice” are not so well integrated as in later stories, but the author is striving for an impression. He uses a disease to effect physical and moral changes in Berenice’s character, but does not artistically develop his early statement that moral changes have taken place. In the opening references to previous existence of the soul he suggests that Berenice’s body is possessed by a new spirit which is the came of bodily changes, but there is no artistic exposition of the reason why the spirit should choose Berenice as there is in later stories like “Ligeia.” “Berenice” does not succeed in realizing the perfect plot that Poe demanded of his later stories, but does succeed in creating a powerful mood in such sweeping descriptions as this of the course of a disease:

. . . even while I gazed upon her, the spirit of change swept over her, pervading her mind, her habits, and her character, and, in a manner the most subtle and terrible, disturbing even the identity of her person! Alas! the destroyer came and went, and the victim — where was she? I know her not — or knew her no longer as Berenice.(63)

In “Berenice” he obtains good practice in the use of medical lore that will make possible some of his later masterpieces in the genre of the short story. [page 265:]

One of these triumphs came in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” published in 1839.(64) In this story the two main characters are like those in “Berenice.” The hero suffers from a mania, and the heroine, a close kinswoman, is wasted away by a baffling disease, one aspect of which is a trance. In “Berenice” it is epileptic; in “The Fall of the House of Usher” it is cataleptic. Between the two main characters in each story there is an unexplained sympathy or antipathy that is psychic as well as merely physical.

The baffling disease is a part of the horror and fear of some of his stories — an element which perhaps comes to him from Gothic tales. The nameless, unknown, or only vaguely understood disease is a greater source of fear than the named and the known. At a time when medicine wa t becoming a real science, bodily ills were often fatal and therefore a source of terror. Some of this terror in the face of a nameless or incurable bodily ill Hawthorne has caught in “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” “The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and The Scarlet Letter. Although Poe’s stories do not emphasize the moral implications as do Hawthorne’s, they do blend the, superstitious fear of disease and insanity with other elements to make a rich story. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is better than “Berenice” in this respect. In it every element — the medical and psychic — is an organic part of an artistic entity.

Roderick Usher is the victim “of acute bodily illness,”(65) which is probably the same as “the disease of the Lady Madeline,” his sister, a disease [page 266:] which “had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affection of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis.”(66) Roderick Usher had all his sister’s symptoms except the cataleptical ones.

Catalepsy, the medical men of Poe’s day supposed, was much more common among women than among men.(67) Furthermore, it was considered to be a kind of hysteria or at least closely akin to nervous hysteria; sometimes it was associated with insanity. Madeline Usher, as the woman of the House of Usher, was just such a person as would most likely suffer attacks of catalepsy.

She and her brother were identical twins,(69) and presumably therefore, much alike in temperament and physique. Lady Madeline alone must be subject to cataleptic trance and consequently to premature interment.

The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death.(70)

Her disease, again like Berenice’ a, in general is analogous to phthisis, but Poe deliberately does not give it a name. The illness progresses until [page 267:] Lady Madeline is taken for dead and is deposited in the fanny’s metal at — actually not dead but in a cataleptic trance. “The patient so affected,” one noted medical lecturer of Poe’s time 1836-1840) wrote of catalepsy, “. . . looks like a waxen figure; or an inanimate statue; or a frozen corpse.”(71) Roderick continues to waste away, prey to terror and an unexplainable bodily ill. Thus, when death comes to him, it is no surprise to the reader, who has watched him deteriorate psychologically and physically.

This story contains another medical allusion — a gruesome one that is a elementary on the state of medicine in Poe’s day. As the narrator of the story enters the House of Usher, he has a foreboding experience, which he describes in these words:

On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on.(72)

Then before the climax of the story, narrator relates:

. . .one evening, having informed me abruptly that the Lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, previously to its final interment, in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building. The worldly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute. The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial ground of the family. I will not deny that when I call to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and not by any means an unnatural precaution.(73) [page 268:]

Precaution against what? In 1950 the passages mean little. But in 1839, they had point. Those were the days when unscrupulous doctors robbed graves to get corpses for dissection: And Roderick. Usher did not want his sister to serve as a cadaver before the medical students of a doctor of low-cunning! In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was much popular sentiment against dissection and there were few if any laws legalizing it; therefore, the demonstrators in anatomy and their students had to resort to grave-snatching to carry on their education.(74) Such was the state of medical education in those days, it is no wonder that Roderick Usher took natural precautions to prevent the violation of his sister’s body from a grave in a remote situation! “The unusual character of the malady of the deceased” would make the doctors eager to conduct a post-mortem dissection to learn more about the disease.(75) His decision to thwart the doctor makes it seem more reasonable in the story that Madeline Usher should be placed in a temporary tomb. [page 269:]

Poe gives the reader a skilful hint as to the nature of the illness of the Ushers. Their malady may be due, he half suggests, to “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the slant tarn — a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull sluggish, faintly discernible and leaden-hued.”(76) Later in the story, he speaks of “the rank miasma of the tarn,” and has the narrator tell Roderick Usher, “the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame.”(77) To the informed reader of Poe’s day such references would suggest disease and death more readily than to the reader of today. According to Dunglison’s dictionary, an authority then,

The word miasm has, by some, been employed synonymously with contagion. It is now used more definitely for any emanation, either from the bodies of the sick, or from animal and vegetable substances, or from the earth, especially in marshy districts, . . .which may exert a morbid influence on those who are exposed to its action. . . . Of the miasma which arise either from the animal heny or from the most unhealthy situations, we know, chemically, nothing. All that we do know is that, under such circumstances, emanations take place, capable of causing disease in many of those who are exposed to their action.(78) [page 270:]

No wonder then that the Ushers, with a hereditary susceptibility to disease, should fall victims to this strange, mysterious malady.. The depressing, melancholy landscape so capably described at the opening of “The Fall the House of Usher” is more than a gloomy romantic background. It is also such a background as will offer a plausible explanation for the destroying disease of Roderick and Madeline Usher. Like a consummate artist, Poe makes the setting contribute to his story in more ways than one.

He includes an essay of almost two pages on catalepsy in another of his Wries, “The Premature Burial.” In order to complete the deception of the reader which is necessary for the surprise explanation that comes toward the end of this story, he makes the narrator subject to “the singular disorder which physicians have agreed to term catalepsy, in default of a more definitive title.”(79) He then describes the symptoms and mentions the mysterious causes of the disease. He emphasizes the possibility of premature interment of a person subject to such an illness, and has the narrator add: “My own case differed in no important particular from those mentioned in medical books.(80) This is one of several passages in Poels stories that refer to medical literature, and such references together constitute evidence for the supposition that Poe himself did a considerable amount of reading in medical science.

In consequence of his cataleptic disease, the narrator in “The Premature Burial” develops a morbid fear of being buried alive. In this respect he is each like a man described in John Snart a Thesaurus of Horror, etc., who suffered a “horrible temerity of premature interment, and became the [page 271:] standing jest. . . . of those who were daily taunting him about it!”(81) Poe’s use of premature burial is perhaps an offshoot of his interest in medicine.(82)

In “The Premature Burial” catalepsy again is employed to give the appearance of reality to the fear of being buried alive which furnished the motif of the story. A similar use is made of the disease in “Some Words with a Mummy.” In this tale, the author makes a pretense only at verisimilitude, and in that pretense he has the ancient Egyptian subject to a catalepsy. Telling his own story, the munmr declares: “I fell into catalepsy, and it was considered by my best friends that I was either dead or should be; they accordingly embalmed me at once. . . .”(83) Thus he can be vivified a few thousand years later.

Another kind of disease that Poe blends with other materials in creating some of his tales is pestilence. It forms the very essence of “The Masque of the Red Death,” is the background of “King Pest,” is apparent in the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, and appears incidentally in other stories. When pestilential disease is an important feature of a story, Poe uses it to explain factors in the background of the narrative that are necessary to the plot. It provides isolation of a group of people or a district; it creates a mood of death and fear and horror. [page 272:]

In his review of Madrid in 1835, he singles out for mention “some memorabilia of the year 1835 — the Cholera. . . .”(84) His story “The Sphinx” takes “during the dread reign of the Cholera in New York,”(85) and. in”MellontaTauta” the narrator comments cynically that “the plague is doing its good work beautifully both in Yurope and Ayesher.”(86) In “The Domain of Arnheim” he writes, “The heart-sick avoid distant proseects as a pestilence.”(87) These citations indicate an awareness of pestilence, but his important use of it appears in three other tales.

In one of his earliest stories, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” Poe describes a phantom ship, probably the dreaded “Flying Dutchman or another of its but no mention is made of the grim disease which made all the crew phantoms. In the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, however, the gruesome crew are described:

From the saffron-like hue of some of the corpses as were not entirely decayed, we concluded that the whole of her company had perished by the yellow-fever, or some other virulent disease of the same fearful kind.(88)

This part of the story is true to the tradition of the “Flying Dutchman.”(89) [page 273:] Poe uses the story here to suggest the horror of the situation in which his characters find themselves.(90)

“King Pest” is a grotesque sketch laid against a macabre background, which is the result of dread plague. “At the epoch of this eventful tale, periodically, for many years before and after, all England, but more especially the metropolis, resounded with the fearful cry of ‘Plague!’”(91) Entrance to certain districts was forbidden because in them the plague had had the most horrible effects. In one of these forbidden areas Legs and HoghTarpaulin experience the adventures that are the narrative of this story. Here Poe may be taking suggestions from Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. As in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he makes use of a pestilential atmosphere:

The air was cold and misty. The paving-stones, loosened from their beds, lay in wild disorder amid the tall, rank grass, which sprang up around the feet and ankles. Fallen houses choked up the streets. The most fetid and poisonous smells everywhere prevailed; — and by the aid of that ghastly light which, even at midnight, never fails to emanate from a vapory and pestilential atmosphere, might be discerned lying in the by-paths and alleys, or rotting in the windowless habitations, the carcass of many a nocturnal plunderer arrested by the hand of the plague in the very perpetration of his robbery.(92)

In a deserted house in such a ghastly setting, Legs and Tarpaulin meet an [page 274:] odd assortment of derelicts. They are distinguished respectively by a monstrous forehead, a mouth which was “a terrific chasm,” a “nose, extremely long, thin, sinuous, flexible, and pimpled, that hung down fat below her bier lip,” “cheeks. . .like two huge bladders of Oporto wine,” “a pair of pr igious ears. . .which it was no doubt found impossible to confine,” “a pair dimge goggle eyes.”(93) Pestilence supplies the ghoul-like background against which these characters of enormous anatomical malformations work out their macabre destinies.

Although he used pestilential disease as background for more than one story, it is “The Masque of the Red Death” that stands pre-eminent as a work of art among his tales of this nature. Here the pestilential background, the fear inspired by it, “the redness and horror” of it are the story. The opening paragraph is a powerful fictionized description of pestilence — the “Red Death.”

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of hie fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.(94)

Here again the disease is mysterious, unlike any known affliction. It is neither yellow nor black, but red — a color often used by Poe to suggest [page 275:] horror and death. The Red Death is Poe’s art creation, compounded of the Black Death, yellow fever, cholera, and the plague. The last three of these diseases were much dreaded in the nineteenth century, and yellow fever and cholera were well known in the United States during his lifetime. The Black Death had been famous in medicine, literature, and history since 1347.(95)

Drawing on his knowledge of real illnesses, Poe graphically describes the Red Death. The scarlet stains upon the face, sharp pains, dizziness, profuse bleeding, quick seizure — these are the concrete symptoms. “And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.”(96) He writes for the layman in geed medical language. “The Masque of the Red Death” is not more a short story than a pictur in brilliant colors of a disease vividly imagined. It is an artistic and idealized painting of the pestilential afflications that have always plagued mankind, taking his life without mercy — a study in red — “the redness and the horror of blood.”

Pestilential diseases are not the only ones that Poe makes a part of his stories. Among the others not alreadydiscussed phthisis is most important. [page 276:] Phthisis is the name often given in the nineteenth century to what is today popularly called tuberculosis of the lungs or consumption.(97) The gradual, tragic withering and fading away of a beautiful woman could be explained on the assumption that she had tuberculosis, and Poe uses the emaciating disease in his stories to explain the deaths of beautiful young women whose lives gradually go out like a dying fire.

“Metzengerstein,” Poe’s first published story, contains a paragraph high-lighting the romantic aspects of consumption:

The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves. Thus died the Lady Mary.(98)

Probably in consideration of his wife, Poe omitted this passage from the final version of this story, but it does show an early interest in the illness.

In other stories both Morella and Eleanora suffer from a disease that wastes away their lives. Poe does not name it, but clearly it is of the tare of phthisis. Morella, like women in some other of Poe’s stories, pines away daily. “In time, the crimson spot settled steadily upon the cheek, and the blue veins upon the pale forehead became prominent.”(99) The crimson spot is the symbol of the persistent hectic fever of confirmed [page 277:] tuberculosis and the enlarged vein is a common symptom. Her life declined and she died, as one must of such a disease in 1835. Eleanora is similarly afflicted. “She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom — that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die.”(100)

Likewise afflicted is a diminutive young lady in “King Pest.” Poe describes her symptoms:

This delicate little creature, in the trembling of her wasted fingers, in the livid hue of her line, and in the slight hectic spot which tinged her otherwise leaden complexion, gave evident indications of a galloping consumption.(101)

His most complete description of phthisis, however, comes in his gruesome story of death arrested by mesmerism — (102) “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” This tale is more revolting than a case history and almost as Wailed. N. Valdemar is approaching death. “His physicians had declared him in a confirmed phthisis.”(103) And “his disease was or that character which would admit of exact calculation with respect to the epoch of its termination in death.”(104) Thus is laid the basis for the experiment in mesmerism. A trial is to be made whether animal magnetism can postpone death. [page 278:]

Poe’s description of M. Valdemar is a detailed setting forth of the symptoms of a person in the most advanced stages of consumption. It begins:

His face wore a leaden hue; the eyes were utterly lustreless; and the emaciation was so extreme that the skin had been broken through by the cheek-bones. gic expectoration was excessive. The pulse was barely perceptible. He. retained, nevertheless, in a very remarkable manner, both his mental power and certain degree of physical strength.(105)

From the doctors the narrator learns the more technical details:

The left lung had been for eighteen months in a semi-osseous or cartilaginous state, and was, of course, entirely useless for all purposes of vitality. The right, in its upper portion, was also partially, if not thoroughly, ossified, while the lower region was merely a mass of purulent tubercles, running one into another. Several extensive Perforations existed; and, at one point, permanent adhesion to the ribs had taken place. These appearances in the right lobe were of comparatively recent date.(106)

This description accords with the medical science of that day with the exception that Poe describes the condition of the lungs as osseous.(107) When he says the left lung is farther advanced in the disease than the right lung, he shows a knowledge uncommon among laymen. The left lung, in fact, is usually the first attacked.(108) It is the upper portion of a lung that is usually attacked first in adults.(109) The purulent tubercles, extensive perforations, and adhesions were in accord with medical science of his day. [page 279:]

After Valdemar is placed in the mesmeric trance,Poe describes his condition at intervals, and a medical student of the narrator’s acquaintance records in good medical style everything that happens. For example, “By this tine his pulse was unperceptible and his breathing was stertorous, and at intervals of half a minute.”(110) Later “the pulse was imperceptible; the breathing was gentle (scarcely noticeable, unless through the application of a mirror to the lips) . . . .”(111)

Shortly before absolute death, Valdemar acts thus:

The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly; the skin generally assumed a cadaverous hue, resembling not so much parchment as white paper; and the circular hectic spots which, hitherto, had been strongly defined in the centre of each cheek, went out at once.(112)

Finally, when the mesmeric influence is withdrawn,death comes with all its attendant decay.

So skilfully did Poe describe the symptoms of the disease and the progress of M. Valdemar in the mesmeric trance that some of his readers thought the story was the true account of an actual person. The illness, advanced tuberculosis, is an essential part of the narrative. Without it, there could be no story. Poe has used the disease for the purpose of putting his main character into a condition suitable for the experiment in mesmerism. He has blended two distinct elements, the one medical and the other mesmeric to make this tale. In the United States mesmerism was a popular fad [page 280:] of the 1840s and phthisis might fairly be called the popular disease.(113) The two elements make this story, if not pleasant, at least powerful.

In addition to displaying a fair knowledge of anatomy, epilepsy and talepsy, pestilential diseases, and pulmonary phthisis, he refers to treatments of wounds, fevers, or other abnormal conditions and to experiments supposed corpses with a galvanic battery.

One of his earlier tales, “A Decided Loss,” later expanded and reprinted as “Loss of Breath,” is a sort of burlesque in which it is imagined that a carried man loses his breath while scolding his wife. Among the ensuing adventures experienced by the narrator are some of medical significance. He is hanged, and the result is a chafing of his neck and a violent determination of blood to the brain.”(114) Later he is cut down, sold to a physician for dissection. The physician makes an incision in his stomach, removes some of hie “viscera for private examination.(115) An apothecary who has been called in applies a new galvanic battery to his muscles,(116) as many experimenters in Europe were doing in the first part of the nineteenth century. In the later version of the same story, Poe has his narrator, now named Lacko’breath, state: [page 281:]

I could not even open my mouth; much less then make reply to some ingenious fanciful theories of which, under other circumstances, my minute acquaintance with the Hippocratian pathology would have afforded me a ready confutation.(117)

In “Some Words with a Mummy the use of the galvanic battery for experiments on the muscles is a part of the story. With rather labored humor, he writes:

We made an incision over the outside of the exterior os sesamoideum pollicis pedis, and thus got at the root of the abductor muscle. Re-adjusting the battery, we now applied the fluid to the bisected nerves — when, with a axement of exceeding lifelikeness, the Mummy first drew up its right knee so as to bring it nearly in contact with the abdomen, and then, straightening the limb with inconceivable force, bestowed a kick upon Doctor Pononner. . . . (118)

The os sesamoideum pollicis pedis is one of the small bones or the great toe, as Poe knew in his attempt at humor.

He describes rather minutely the results of an arm wound in the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.

Augustus’s wounded arm began to evince symptoms of mortification. He complained of drowsiness and excessive thirst, but no acute pain. Nothing could be done for his relief beyond rubbing his wounds with a little of the vinegar from the olives, and from this no benefit seemed to be experienced.(119)

A similar remedy is applied to the narrator:

I was resuscitated from a state bordering very nearly upon death (and after every other means had been tried in vain for three hours and a half) by orous friction with flannels bathed in hot oil — (120) [page 282:]

Poe seems to have liked such home-made remedies and probably describes them from personal experience. In “The Journal of Julius Rod he describes another as follows: “Jules, the Canadian, made him sorry tea, from prairie herbs, which had the effect of inducing perspiration, and allayed the fever very sensibly.”(121) In the Western fiction for the century following this story, almost every backwoodsman or Indian scout knew how to cure diseases by the use of herbs.

In “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” Augustus Sedloe had suffered long series of neuralgic attacks,”(122) which his physician Dr. Templeton attempts to cure by means of mesmeric trances.(123) But Bedloe does not die of neuralgia. Rather, after “a slight cold and fever were contracted, attended with great determination of blood to the head,”(124) Dr. Templeton decides to use leeches for bleeding. One of them turns out to be a “venomous vermicular sangsue,”(125) and Bedloe dies. In this story the medical lore is used to add plausibility to the strange experiences that Bedloe has while in the mesmeric trance. (126) A person weakened oy disease was considered a better subject for a mesmerist than a strong, healthy person.

In all, Poe makes enough specific references to medical treatments of various sorts to indicate an active interest in the subject. He is alert to the new developments, such as the power of the galvanic battery, and shows a considerable amount of medical reading. [page 283:]

In addition to his descriptions of specific treatments and experiments in medical science, Poe uses miscellaneous data that further demonstrate a more-than-average knowledge of the subject.

The results of poisoning he describes in Narrative of A. Gordon Pym as follows:

Rogers had died about eleven in the forenoon, in violent convulsions; and the corpse presented in a few minutes after death one of the nest horrid and loathsome spectacles I ever remember to have seen. The stomach was swollen immensely, like that of a man who has been drowned and lain under water for many weeks. The herds were in the same condition, while the face was shrunken, shrivelled, and of a chalky whiteness except where relieved by two or three glaring red splotches, like those occasioned by the erysipelas: one of these splotches extended diagonally across the face, completely gmering up an eye as if with a band of red velvet.(127)

Elsewhere in his writings Poe describes a man’s difficulty in breathing and the “spasmodic action of his chest”;(128) the two stages “in the return to life from swoon”;(129) “half-asphyzia”(130) and “a tingling physico-mental exhilaration, somewhat like that induced by a cold bath”;(131) and physiological aspects of the human voice.(132)

Many parts of Poe’s works testify to his knowledge of medicine and his interest in it.(133) Particularly his tales he shows a rather detailed understanding of certain aspects of medical science and uses his knowledge to help create good short stories.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 249:]

1.  From the time Poe first knew Virginia she was never well, Chivers said Poe told him, — George E. Woodberry, ed., “Poe-Chivers Papers,” Century Magazine, LXV (Jan., 1903), 445. In The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, translated by John Rodker (London, 1939 [[1949]]), Marie Bonaparte contends that the illness of Poe’s mother had a powerful influence on him of which he was unaware.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 250:]

2.  Just after he left West Point, when he was twenty-two years old, on February 21, 1831, he wrote to John Allan: “I shall never rise from my bed . . .” — Valentine Letters, p. 268.

3.  William Frederick Norwood, Medial Educating in the United States, before the Civil War (Philadelphia, 1944), p. 430.

4.  Ibid., p. 431.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 251:]

5.  Transactions of the American Medical Association, I, 283.

6.  Ibid., I, 255.

7.  Ibid., I, 287.

8.  Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia 1819-1919 (New York, 1920), II, 80.

9.  Ibid., II, 110-111.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 252:]

10.  Ibid., II, 107. Dunglison is said to be the author of a review of Tucker’s Voyage to the Moon, which Poe knew.

11.  John Grier Varner, Edgar Allan Poe and the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, etc. (Charlottesville, Va., 1933), Part II, pp. 11-12. “Consumption” may be one of the literary sources of Poe’s interest in this disease. It deals with the death of a sweet, charming woman suffering from consumption. — “Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician,” Blackwood’s Magazine XXVIII (Nov., 1830), 322ff.

12.  Works, VIII, 276, reprinted from the Southern Literary Messenger of April, 1836. Published in this year also, a series of sketches under the title “Autography” contains a short note on Dr. Robert M. Bird, literary man, physician, and scientist. — Ibid., XV, 156. See also XV, 203-204. Dr. Bird Lectured at the Pennsylvania Medical College in 1841, 1842, and 1843 years during which Poe was in Philadelphia.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 253:]

13.  Harrison says of this review: “Doubtfully Poe’s.” — Works, IV, 164. In any event, Poe was editor when it appeared. Poe probably knew of Dr. Haxall by reputation at least, for Dr. Haxall was to be one of the faculty members of a proposed medical school in Richmond, scheduled to open at the end of October, 1835, when Poe was in Richmond. — Norwood, op. cit., p. 270. The review comments on the author’s “more than ordinary powers of analysis” (Works, XV, 164), and is in Poe’s manner.

14.  Ibid., XV, 166.

15.  Loc. cit.

16.  Richard Harrison Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine, second edition (New York, 1947), p. 158. The review rightly reports that some of Louis’s most significant work concerned typhoid.

17.  Works, II, 266.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 254:]

18.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, VI (Feb., 1840), 82.

19.  Fielding H. Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine, etc. third edition, Revised and Enlarged (Philadelphia and London, 1922), pp. 506-507.

20.  Graham’s Magazine, XIX (Nov., 1841 128.

21.  Ibid., XX (Feb., 1842), 128.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 255:]

22.  Works, XV, 230. One of his poems, “Soliloquy of an Octogenarian,” Dr. Earle sent to Poe in October of 1840 for publication in Poe’s projected Penn Magazine. Poe praised it, but his new five-dollar journal did not materialize. — F. B. Sanborn, editor, Memoirs of Pliny Earle, M. D. etc. (Boston, 1898), pp. 146-149. The poem was published in Graham’s Magazine, XVIII (May, 1841), 241, when Poe was editor.

23.  Garrison, op. cit., p. 462. Poe in Philadelphia. It was Dr. Mitchell who treated Virginia Poe in Philadelphia.

24.  Works, XV, 220, 221.

25.  Ibid., XV, 256

26.  Ibid., XV, 258.

27.  Ibid., IV, 222.

28.  Ibid., VI, 38.

29.  Arturo Castiglioni, A History of Medicine, translated from the Italian and edited by E. B. Krumbhaar (New York, 1941), p. 598. Dr. Abernethy advised a spunger to take advice for his illness instead of trying to get a free medical opinion. Works, VI, 38.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 256:]

30.  Works, VI, 53. This story was first published in Graham’s Magazine of Nov., 1845.

31.  I, 267.

32.  I, 392-393. This review gives evidence of the reviewer’s reading in the literature of medicine ard advances one of Poe’s favorite scientific ideas — that men who grasp only details are second-rate thinkers.

33.  See the Broadway Journal, II (Aug. 16, 1845), 94.

34.  II, 275.

35.  Poe was once invited to dinner at the Francis home. See Julie Ward Howe, Reminiscences 1819-1899 (Boston and New York, 1900), p. 39.

36.  Poe spells the name with two s’s.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 257:]

37.  Works, XV, 25.

38.  Thomas Dunn English, who at one time was his friend, had earned an M. D. degree, but turned from medicine to law. — Ibid., XV, 66. Likewise Poe’s friends George W. Eveleth and Thomas H. Chivers each had studied medicine.

39.  Works, VIII, 320.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 258:]

40.  Ibid., XIV, 9.

41.  Ibid., III, 261.

42.  Ibid., III, 269.

43.  Poe’s “The Man That Was Used Up” may be indebted to “A Wooden Nose,” Waldie’s Portfolio, Part I (Feb., 1836), p. 48. In that story a man is given a nose, palate, and other such apparatus much as General Smith is given the physical members he lacks.

44.  Works, IV, 164.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 259:]

45.  “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” ibid , IV, 98.

46.  Ibid., IV, 141.

47.  Robley Dunglison, A Dictionary of Medical Science, etc., ninth edition, Revised (Philadelphia, 1852), p. 535. This book by Dunglison was a standard reference work for half a century, finally reaching twenty-three editions. See Norwood, op. cit., p. 263.

48.  Castiglioni, op. cit., pp. 795-797.

49.  “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” Works, IV, 201.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 260:]

50.  Graham’s Magazine, XX (April, 1842), 200.

51.  In the early nineteenth century, many diseases were not understood and consequently were given no specific names.

52.  Works, II, 2540

53.  Ibid., II, 254-255.

54.  Ibid., 261.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 261:]

55.  In that scene the spirit Ligeia and Lady Rowena struggle for the body of the fair-haired one, and Ligeia of the strong will is the vanquisher. So completely does she dominate her weaker rival that even the body of Rowena increases in stature and the eyes and hair are completely changed in color when the spirit of Ligeia takes possession of it. Such a change in the very du and quality of the body is typical of other stories of metempsychosis. Per an entirely different interpretation of “Ligeia,” see Roy P. Basler, late Interpretation of ‘Ligeia,’” College English, V (April, 1944) 363-372. Also see the chapter “Psychology,” page 91.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 262:]

56.  (Milledgeville,Ga., 1848), p. 516.

57.  One medical writer states it thus: “In catalepsy the patient is fired, motionless, and senseless; the circulation of the blood is feeble, and the breathing so gentle, that the person has all the appearance of a corpse. In some cases, the similitude of death had been so perfect, as to have led to the interment of the patient alive.” — Ibid., p. 516. Poe may first have received the suggestion for this idea from reading Blackwood’s Magazine or medical literature. Miss Margaret Alterton discusses Poe’s use of medical material from Blackwood’s Magazine in Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, pp. 22-26.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 263:]

58.  Works, II, 18.

59.  Indeed one writer of that time describes the trance state of epilepsy as probably a cause of catalepsy. — Sam’l Henry Dickson, Essays on Pathology and Therapeutics, etc. (New York, 1845), II, 448.

60.  Works, II, 18.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 264:]

61.  Ibid., II, 25.

62.  Ibid., II, 26.

63.  Ibid., II, 18.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 265:]

64.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, V, 145-152.

65.  Ibid., V, 145.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 266:]

66.  Ibid., V, 147.

67.  “Catalepsy, Encyclopaedia Americana, first edition, II, 574.

68.  Thomas Watson, “Catalepsy,” Lectures on the Principles and Practice of Physic, third American from the last London edition (Philadelphia, 1854), p. 424. These lectures were originally published in 1843.

69.  See page 96 in the chapter “Psychology.” According to modern medical science, identical twins are of the same sex, but Poe’s story demanded a brother and sister.

70.  Works, III, 289.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 267:]

71.  Watson, op. cit., p. 424.

72.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, V (Sept., 1839), 146.

73.  Ibid., V, 149-150.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 268:]

74.  “In 1824 there was on the Yale campus at New Haven a serious disturbance resulting from robbing a fresh grave of the body of Bathsheba Smith, a nineteen-year-old daughter of a local farmer. When the body was found by the town constable in the basement of the school building, three students were charged with the crime.” — Norwood, op. cit., pp. 398-400. As late as 1844 a mob in St. Louis attacked a medical college. In Virginia there were no laws legalizing the use of bodies for dissection until 1884.

75.  For a more complete discussion of the “Ressurectionists,” see Wyn ham B. Blanton, “Anatomy and Grave-Robbing,” Medicine in Virginia in the Century (Richmond, 1933), pp. 69-74; and Fielding H. Garrison, 22. 21I., pp. 471-472. A note “Disinterment,” in Alexander’s Weekly Messenger for April 1, 1840, asserts: “Human dissection is the surest and truest basis . . . of all medical knowledge.” The note may be by Poe, for the subject interested him. See Clarence S. Brigham, Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (Worcester, Mass., 1943), pp. 64-65.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 269:]

76.  Works, III, 276.

77.  Ibid., III, 292.

78.  Dunglison, op. cit., “Miasma,” p. 562. Compare Poe’s quotation with the one from “King Pest” on page 273 of this chapter. Elsewhere Poe writes of the unhealthful effect of miasma. In his article “Street Paving,” he states: “The first objection to wooden pavements is that of injury to the public health from miasmata arising from the wood.” — Works, XIV, 167. Later in the article he meets the objection by asserting that “the source of miasma (decay) can be prevented.” — Ibid., XIV, 167. And he concludes: “Decay being thus prevented, all danger from miasma is of course to be left out of the question; and although it has been frequently asserted that the mercurial effluvium is injurious to the health — the assertion had been as frequently refuted in the most positive and satisfactory manner. The mercury is too closely assimilated with the wooden fibre to admit of any perceptible effluvium. Even where sailors have lived for months in the most confined holds of vessels built of mineralized wood, no ill consequences have been found to arise.” — Ibid., XIV, 168. See also John Mason Good, The Study of Medicine with a Physiological System of Nosology, second American edition (Philadelphia, 1824), II, 49 and Richard Harrison Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (Philadelphia, 1936), p. 83.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 270:]

79.  Works, V, 264.

80.  Ibid., V, 265.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 271:]

81.  (London, 1817), p. 84.

82.  Certainly the theme was one often found in the earlier issues of Blackwood’s Magazine. That magazine declared, “Two different editions of our Magazine, by the way, are published every month within the United States.” — XIV (Nov., 1823), 571.

83.  Works, VI, 128.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 272:]

84.  Ibid., IX, 158.

85.  Ibid., VI, 238.

86.  Ibid., VI, 200. Further mention is made of plague in II, 147ff. and II, 167.

87.  Ibid., VI, 190.

88.  Ibid., III, 114. Poe’s story is also probably indebted in a general way to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

89.  One medical historian writes: “The story of the Flying Dutchman is that of a ship stricken with Yellow Fever. The spectre ship is supposed to haunt the seas around the Cape of Good Hope, and to bode ill for those who see it. A murder was committed on the ship, and following it ‘Yellow Jack’ broke out.” — Charles Singer, A Short History of Medicine (Oxford, 1928), P. 275.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 273:]

90.  Perhaps he took a suggestion from Charles Brockden Brown when he chose yellow fever as a subject. Brown’s Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 depicts happenings in Philadelphia in a year of yellow fever epidemic. Benjamin Rush, pioneer American physician, heroically did what he could to help victims during this year of pestilence. Pennsylvania was already a medical center in 1793 as it was forty-five years later when Poe went there to live.

91.  Works, II, 171.

92.  Ibid., II, 172. See page 269 of this chapter.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 274:]

93.  Ibid., II, 174-177. These six were very likely suggested to Poe by an account of “The Club of Ugly Faces,” which appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine. The members are distinctive because of such characteristic features as a long chin, a big mouth, a freakish nose, eyes like a tumbler, convex cheeks, and a big head. — III (Aug., 1818), 555-556.

94.  Works, IV, 250.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 275:]

95.  Philadelphia, his home when he wrote “The Masque of the Red Death,” had suffered severe epidemics of “Yellow Fever” in the 1790s. Many fled the city, others avoided their friends, and refused to allow strangers from other cities to visit them. — Francis Randolph Packard, The History of Medicine in the United. States (Philadelphia, 1901), pp. 110-155. In general, they acted very much as the citizens described briefly in the story. — Ibid., p. 131. Lambert Wilmer was named as one of those who braved the ravages of Yellow Fever to fight the epidemic of 1793. One of Poe’s best friends in the 1830s was Lambert A. Wilmer, very possibly a nephew or son of the one who fought Yellow Fever in Philadelphia. Perhaps Poe heard the ravages described by his friend’s namesake. New York had visitations of the plague, yellow fever and cholera. — Henry E. Sigerist, American Medicine, translated by Hildegard Nagel (New York, 1934 p. 205.

96.  Works, IV, 250.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 276:]

97.  The word phthisis, unless modified, was generally taken to mean “pulmonary phthisis.” The literal meaning is “fading away.

98.  John Grier Varner, Edgar Allan Poe and the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, pp. 11, 12.

99.  Works, II, 29.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 277:]

100.  Ibid., IV, 240.

101.  Ibid., II, 176.

102.  For a discussion of this story with respect to mesmerism, see the chapter “Mesmerism.”

103.  Works, VI, 156.

104.  Ibid., VI, 156. Today it is generally held that it is quite difficult to predict the exact time of death of a person dying of tuberculosis, but Poe’s story demands this assumption.

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105.  Ibid., VI, 156-157.

106.  Ibid., VI, 157.

107.  Sometimes calcareous tuberculous deposits are formed in the lungs in this disease, but they are very small; and I have found no medical writer who describes it as osseous. Probably cartilaginous, solidified, or, if it be meant, caseous are more accurate words.

108.  Watson, op. cit., “Phthisis Pulmonalis,” p. 628.

109.  Ibid., 628.

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110.  Works, VI, 159.

111.  Ibid., VI, 160.

112.  Ibid., VI, 162.

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113.  For example, Miss M. G. Kyle published a poem “Death of the Consumptive,” The Magnolia, III (Dec., 1841), 550-555. Also see W. A. Caruthers, “Love and Consummtion,” Magnolia, N. S., I (Sept., 1842), 179. 1, other examples can be found in the magazine literature of that era.

114.  Varner, op. cit., p. 47.

115.  Ibid., p. 48. In the later version, the word examination, is changed to the more technical dissection.

116.  Ibid., pp. 48-49. This part of the story may have been suggested to Poe by a section of the “Memoirs of Joseph Brasbridge,” Blackwood’s Magazine, XVI (Oct., 1824)1 436-437. There a man supposedly killed by hanging is also brought to the surgeon’s dissecting table.

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117.  Works, II, 158.

118.  Ibid., VI, 122. See also ibid., VI, 99 and IX, 136.

119.  Ibid., III, 138.

120.  Ibid., III, 16.

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121.  Ibid., IV, 72.

122.  Ibid., V, 164.

123.  The chapter “Mesmerism” discusses the use of the trance in this story.

124.  Works, V, 175.

125.  Ibid., V, 176.

126.  Bleeding as a treatment of hysteria is mentioned in “The Oblong Box” — Ibid., III, 85.

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127.  Works, III, 85.

128.  Ibid., III, 42.

129.  Ibid., V, 69.

130.  “Guy Fawkes,” ibid., 215.

131.  “Stanley Thorn,” Ibid., X, 11.

132.  Works, II, 153.

133.  Further incidental references to some aspect of medicine are found in Works, II, 143; II, 375; IV, 224; VI, 121; X, 210; XIV, 178-179; XVI, 93; and Doings of Gotham, p. 63.

 


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[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Chapter 10)