The Dogs’ Bach

Making the news last week was the amusing story of the zoo in Belgium that recently captured a video of a family of elephants appearing to sway in unison to a performance of live classical music. As the Guardian reported it, a group of violinists were asked to play in front of the animals’ enclosure in order to ensure they were not disturbed by the music ahead of an upcoming performance to be held at the zoo. The musicians were surprised to discover that the elephants actually appeared to enjoy it, seeming to listen carefully before beginning to sway their trunks and rock their bodies in time.

This surprising quirk of elephantine behaviour has been noted before. On 29th May, 1798, a group of eleven musicians from the newly established Conservatoire de Musique assembled at the Jardin Des Plantes in Paris to perform a concert especially for the enjoyment of their two new elephants, Hans and Maguerite, recently arrived from India. The programme, performed for the pair whilst they dined, included a dance in B minor from Gluck’s Iphigenia and an adagio from the opera Dardanus, among other pieces. The report on the concert in the Musical World recorded the elephants’ reactions to the different performances, noting their gait which “followed the undulations of the melody and the measure”. It was a solo bassoon rendition of ‘O! ma tendre musette’ in C minor that touched them most deeply. They came closer to the orchestra, “swaying their trunks gently, and seemed to breathe emanations of love”.


Hans and Maguerite

Houël, Jean Pierre Louis Laurent. ‘‘Les eléphants représentes dans l’instant de premières caresses qu’ils se sont faites après qu’on leur a fait entendre de la musique’ , in Histoire Naturelle des deux Elephants, male et femelle, du Muséum de Paris. Paris: Houël, Pougens et. al, 1803.

The elephant concert was one of many experiments of its kind that took place with increasing frequency as the nineteenth century progressed. With the emergent doctrine of evolution gaining currency, the boundaries between animals and humans became progressively blurred, inspiring scientists to search the animal kingdom for evidence of the sorts of mental and emotional qualities previously supposed to be exclusive to humanity. The artistic impulse and the ability to appreciate music were now being discovered in dogs, cats, horses, birds, insects, reptiles, and fish.

The theory that music can affect the emotional states of animals is not neither new nor discredited. In antiquity, one thinks of Orpheus charming the wild beasts of the forest with his lyre, or the Breton bard, St Hervé, whose music supposedly tamed a wolf with his song. Nineteenth-century natural scientists, however, tended to insist that actual critical appraisal was taking place in the reactions of their animal audiences. There are several reports, for instance, of the acumen of the dog of a particular pianist who would listen attentively to op. 19 of Dussek until the 48th bar, at which point it would yelp piteously and seek refuge from the sound. The German musician, Joseph Mainzer, wrote that experiments on a number of dogs revealed that A major always makes this creature uneasy, while E major causes such excitement that once when the experiment went on too long, the dog in question became furious and died in the most frightful convulsions.

It is, of course, difficult to know whether a dog really objects to the key of E major, or to Dussek’s being slightly derivative of Beethoven, as it is difficult to say whether the elephants in the video are truly enjoying the music. The original experiment, however, recorded compelling evidence that Hans and Marguerite did. The elephants, supposedly so overcome and aroused by what they had heard, were later beheld consummating their “jouissances amoreuses” by an attendant natural scientist.

We are still awaiting news from Belgium as to whether any similar reaction was noted in their elephants following the performance. It could be useful information for zoos finding it difficult to breed animals in captivity. Bolero?

Melissa Dickson

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars – Michaelmas Term 2014

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We are very pleased to announce the first three seminars in our Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century series. Drinks will be served after each seminar and all are welcome.

Wednesday 22nd October 2014 (Week 2)

David Trotter, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge

Signalling Madly: Telegraphy and Obsessive Behaviour in Late Nineteenth Century Fiction

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Wednesday 12th November 2014 (Week 5) 

Pietro Corsi, Professor of History of Science, University of Oxford

Across Boundaries: The Business of Scientific Periodicals in Early Nineteenth Century Europe

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 5, St Anne’s College

Wednesday 3rd December 2014 (Week 8) 

Dr Susannah Wilson, Department of French Studies, University of Warwick

Decadents, Innocents and Medical Men: Morphine Addiction in Fin-de- Siècle France

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

All queries to Project Administrator:

The (rather graphic) reminiscences of a medical student

Reading the work of nineteenth-century doctors, it is striking that many tried their hand at fiction as well as penning medical articles and books. Surgeon William Gilbert, for example, published a number of novels that drew upon his medical experiences, including Shirley Hall Asylum (1863), which related the stories of patients in a private asylum. A series of articles in the New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, ‘Reminiscences of a Medical Student’, published between 1841 and 1844, affords another interesting example. ‘Reminiscences’ was written by Robert Douglas, a young Scottish naval surgeon, with each instalment of the series offering a self-contained story (occasionally these stretched across two pieces). Douglas died at just 24, but left behind an impressive body of writing. His pieces for the New Monthly Magazine were collected into one volume, The Adventures of a Medical Student (presumably ‘Adventures’ were more marketable than simple ‘Reminiscences’), after his death.

Although fictional, Douglas’s series offers tantalising glimpses into the nineteenth-century medical student’s world: the horror upon first observing an amputation (‘The Widow’s Child’); the array of macabre equipment carted about in students’ pockets, from lancet-cases to ‘the bones of a hand of a skeleton, wrapped up in a piece of brown paper’ (‘The Adventures of a Night’); and the inevitable pranks of the profession (‘An Excursion with Bob Whyte’).

L0039195 The interior of a dissecting room:

Often, Douglas’s tales take a rather Gothic turn. His accounts of operations are vividly rendered, and in describing the interior of anatomy theatres and dissection rooms the reader almost feels that they can smell the chemicals, the metallic tinge of spilled blood. In ‘A Story of Galvanism’ we hear the story of a ‘science mad’ practitioner of the early nineteenth century, who is obsessed with the idea that electricity is the basis of all life. His experiments on frogs caught in fields, or rabbits bought from the market, both excite and frustrate him; finally, he is able to secure the hanged body of a criminal for experimentation. Dr. X—, as he is nicknamed, announces to the assembled lecture theatre that he will, with a battery apparatus of his own invention, ‘restor[e] [the body] to pulsation, respiration, and motion’. The spectacle that ensues is shocking:

‘…of the gentlemen who [saw it], several rose abruptly, and fled up the stairs, and out of the theatre; one vomited, and another fainted away …

Heaven keep me from ever beholding such a sight again! Its neck was thrust forward, its long gray hair stood on end, its brow was contorted into innumerable wrinkles, the eyelids were drawn forcibly back, the eyeballs with their dead glazed pupils protruding in a hideous stare, its nostrils were widely dilated, while a horrible greenish foam oozed out at the corners of its working lips. I could not remove my eyes from it for one fraction of a second. Never, before or since, has my whole soul been absorbed by such a feeling of unutterable horror!

A moment and it suddenly raised its right arm, and pointed convulsively with its forefinger to Johns, who sat beside me; whilst its ghastly, lifeless eyes glared in the same direction, and every fibre of its face was twitched with a most diabolic, gibbering grin.’

In this tale and several others, Douglas seems to betray both a fascination and uneasiness with the medical profession, dwelling on the ‘horrible’ and ‘ghastly’ details of dissection, amputation, and trepanation. As a reviewer of Adventures of a Medical Student noted in 1848, ‘the surgeon’s saw, poison, and other melo-dramatic climaxes of the same character, are brought forth in gigantic capitals’. His pieces were not mere sensation fiction, however, often containing a clear moral for the reader. ‘[U]nder the cloak of telling wonderful stories,’ the reviewer went on, ‘the author shielded a heart and head alive to the most profound and interesting principles of our nature’. Certainly Douglas’s accounts of the operating theatre, though often wallowing in the gory details, were also thoughtful, expressing profound sympathy with the (albeit fictional) patients on the table and – in one case – their helpless watching relatives. Douglas’s ‘reminiscences’ offer an intriguing portrait of the medical student that goes some way to balancing out their questionable reputation in the eyes of contemporaries: not simply callous pranksters too much given to drinking (though he does admit that that forms some part of the experience), but individuals keenly aware of the gravity of the path they had chosen in life.

V0010932 A foppish medical student smoking a cigarette; denoting a ca