Stormy weather and human barometers

In 1873, a speaker at the Royal Dublin Society declared that ‘many persons are inclined to deny altogether the existence of a weather-science; the triteness of the subject, viewed as a break-ice topic of every-day conversation, having … tended to conceal from them the scientific aspect of the study of weather and climate’. Here, the speaker alluded to the weather as an ever-present but under-investigated topic. Interest in the weather had a long history – the keeping of weather journals was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth century, and from 1751 the Gentleman’s Magazine published a monthly weather report within its pages. The nineteenth century, though, saw more concerted efforts to chart the weather. As travel increased, the impact of the weather on both leisure and trade became an important factor, and monitoring conditions across the globe became easier with technologies such as telegraphy. Observatories collecting meteorological data including rainfall, wind direction, and temperature were set up at Greenwich and Kew in the 1840s, and the precursor of the Met Office established in the 1850s. Alongside these government-level endeavours was an army of amateur observers, organised and advised by the Meteorological Society.

Alongside intricate measurements using a variety of instruments, there was also some appeal to ‘natural’ weather indicators, particularly in almanacs and gardener’s diaries. An unusual suggestion for a ‘natural barometer’ was offered in 1897’s The History of the Weather, which claimed that blackcurrant lozenges imbibed moisture and could ‘predict’ rain. There were also said to be ‘human barometers’. Oft recounted was the case of Captain Catlin, who was apparently able to foretell rain by the pain experienced at the site of his leg amputation. The effect of weather on the body had long been recognised. The impulse to quantification exhibited by nineteenth-century observers, though, opened up the possibility of charting such effects more carefully. From 1838, the General Register Office collected weather information alongside mortality statistics, and renewed impetus was given to such studies following mid-century cholera epidemics. Some doctors began to argue for the necessity of a national network of medical observers of the weather. In this way, harmful atmospheric influences might be recognised and eradicated, or artificial environments constructed for ailing patients.

L0039176 Temperature & mortality of London, 1840-50

Temperature and mortality of London, 1840-50, from William Farr, Report on the mortality of cholera in England, 1848-49 (1852). Wellcome Library, London.

Several doctors saw the value in such an enterprise, and some were already volunteering observations to the Meteorological Society, particularly if they had a large site available to set up meteorological equipment. Hospitals or asylums often possessed open grounds where phenomena such as wind speed could be measured. A Meteorological Society inspector, checking the station set up on the Superintendent’s lawn at Caterham Asylum, was not impressed with what he saw in the 1870s, though: ‘I inspected Dr Adam’s instruments … [and] they were almost all bad’. Dr Adam was given a ticking off and a set of new, Society-approved, instruments for his observations.

In 1867, the management of Sussex Asylum decided that meteorological observations should be a regular exercise. The task fell to asylum chaplain Thomas Crallan, whose yearly meteorological reports were included in the asylum’s annual reports. Admissions and deaths were charted alongside fits and episodes of mania or melancholia. Crallan found high rates of admission in winter and summer that he attributed to the difficult circumstances that a cold winter caused for poor families, and increased sun exposure amongst farm labourers respectively. Though fits peaked in the winter and summer, Crallan noted that they occurred throughout the year. Therefore, he reasoned that the atmospheric force affecting them must be a less perceptible one than simple temperature. He turned to the lunar cycle. John Haslam had tried to chart the effect of lunar cycles on the excitement of Bethlem patients, but dismissed the idea as mere folklore. Crallan persevered in his study, however. He discovered that of 212 fits, all but five were ‘preceded or accompanied by considerable alteration in atmospheric pressure or solar radiation, or both’. Thus, he said, it was not the change of moon that was responsible for the fits, but a change in other weather conditions. It was the frequent coincidence of a changed moon and weather conditions, he said, that had led to the popular linkage of the moon and madness. He concluded: ‘so far as my own observations go, any marked change of atmospheric pressure, solar radiation, or both … is almost certain to be followed by [an] increased number of fits among the epileptics, or by a development of mania or melancholia.’

V0025061 Meteorology: various effects of the weather, from summer cal

Summer calm and winter storms. Lithograph after A.M. Perrot. Wellcome Library, London.

Crallan’s concern for determining a ‘cycle’ of mental distress fitted – as Niall McCrae observes in The Moon and Madness – with the late nineteenth-century reconfiguration of mania and melancholia as one cyclical illness, rather than two separate ones. Though he was undertaking his investigations in a self-consciously ‘scientific’ way, Crallan also appeared to be imagining the asylum patient as a kind of ‘natural barometer’. In the eighteenth century, an awareness of approaching weather tended to be seen as a marker of sensibility, with one’s affinity with the environment a sign of sensitivity. During the nineteenth century, a good deal of attention was paid to the ‘natural barometers’ of the animal kingdom, which tended to be the lower animals – frogs and insects. This is rather wonderfully illustrated by the ‘Tempest Prognosticator’ of George Merryweather, which predicted storms based on the movement of leeches. In imagining the asylum patient as a kind of human barometer, keen to atmospheric changes, doctors were (consciously or unconsciously) aligning them with the animals of weather folklore – a link that fitted into wider discourses about insanity, degeneration and ‘de-evolution’.


Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator. When agitated, the leeches attempted to climb out of the jars and triggered a bell.

What became of medical meteorology, then? The attempts of bodies such as the Association Medical Journal to institute a nationwide network of medical observers proved difficult, as doctors disagreed over the specifics of how to record illness in tabular form. Nevertheless, attempts to correlate weather and mental distress continue to appear sporadically – several researchers have linked suicide and the advent of spring, for example, while moon lore continues to circulate amongst hospital emergency departments, with trepidation before a full moon and an anticipated influx of patients. Our Royal Dublin Society speaker would no doubt be pleased by this continued research into the weather’s effects, even if it does also remain the stereotypical ‘break-ice topic of every-day conversation’.

Read more

Katharine Anderson, Predicting the Weather:Victorians and the Science of Meteorology (2005).

James Rodger Fleming, Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (1999).

Niall McCrae, The Moon and Madness (2011).

J.W. Moore, Royal Dublin Society. Afternoon Scientific Lectures on Public Health, 1873. Lecture III. Meteorology in its bearing on health and disease (1873).

R.E. Scoresby-Jackson, On the Influence of Weather upon Disease and Mortality (1863).

Crackpot File Revisited

Regular readers of this blog might recall that I have a file in my desk that is the repository of all the half-baked pseudo-scientific crackpot ideas that I have come across in the course of my research and filed under ‘C’. My Crackpot File, I am pleased to report, is the very picture of health, growing plumper by the day, fed with fact-sheets on mesmerism, galvanism, snake-oil tonics, green tea awareness campaigns, and all manner of bunkum. Given the amount I have crammed into its increasingly strained binders over the years, I was most excited to at last have occasion to remove a page. This came about a month ago, when a piece appeared in Science Alert reporting on ‘new’ neuroscientific research indicating that magnetic stimulation of the brain can reset unhealthy activity in the right anterior insula of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is known to be overactive in patients with depression. The full article can be found here:

Something about it rang a bell and I started searching through my papers until I came across my notes on Dr Joseph Babinski (1857-1932). Babinski left a legacy to mainstream medicine, lending his name to the reflex known as the ‘Babinski sign’, where the big toes moves upwards upon stimulation of the sole of the foot. This is still used today to test normal responses in infants. Other experiments he conducted, however, led me to relegate him unfairly to the depths of the Crackpot File, namely his work in the short-lived practice of metallotherapy, much in vogue during the later decades of the nineteenth century and led by researchers from the famous French asylum, the Salpêtrière. Their reasoning was based upon the fact that when metals are placed in contact with moist skin, a chemical reaction results which stimulates the nervous system to produce slight electrical currents. This led to radical treatments of hysterical patients by conducting charges through their bodies by way of metallic plates. The fad prompted some with nervous dispositions to wear these plates about their persons, and women with hysterical tendencies to seek solace in bathtubs filled with rusty pieces of scrap iron. Ingesting gold was theorised to fortify the nerves by effecting a similar process internally, but it was Babinski who made the most outlandish claims for the treatment. His experiments in magnetic transmission involved two hysterics who both suffered from hemianesthesia – the loss of sensation in either lateral half of the body. Babinski seated his patients back to back and reported that he was able to use a magnet to transfer their conditions, so that one patient would have complete sensation, while the other would be fully anesthetised.

BabinskiJoseph Babinski (1857-1932)

In the full flush of enthusiasm for his discovery, Babinski suggested a number of applications for his process, proposing that it might be possible to transfer hysteria to another body altogether, such as that of a pig (the ideal subject to infect with hysteria since, one way or another, it would eventually be cured). Babinski ultimately tried to distance himself from these claims, but in the light of the latest research, it seems he may have been closer to the mark than even he suspected. Although far-fetched, his is part of an ongoing scientific and imaginative exploration of the currents that flow through the human body, which may be altered or mediated by various chemicals, metals, or medical technologies. I salute you, Dr Babinski. Please accept my most humble apologies for ever having filed you under C!

Melissa Dickson

The Disorder of Spoiled Children

I’m sure the old platitude that ‘Christmas comes earlier every year’ is true. The Christmas tree went up in our town square two weekends ago, there is a steady stream of junk email flowing into my inbox exhorting me to ‘Get ready for Christmas!’, and – halfway through November – I’ve already seen my first group of carol singers in Oxford city centre. Accompanying the carol singers was another noise that many associate just as closely with the pre-Christmas season: a small child howling on a shop floor, a red-faced parent looking on as their bundle of joy delivers a passionate homily on the unfairness of life and the shocking inhumanity of it all. For hovering alongside the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future is the spectre of over-indulgence.


The spoiled child is not just a product of the modern technological age, however, hankering after iPads and internet-connected dolls (yes, really – the horror film potential of My Friend Cayla is enormous). Pampered children are figures often found in nineteenth-century novels, or satirised in ‘cautionary tales’ such as the iconic Struwwelpeter, in which Augustus (the boy who would not have any soup, above) wastes away to a skeleton as a result of his fussiness. Stories in popular magazines depicted fictional children like those of the ‘Pimento family’ as ‘torturations’ running riot through the house and oblivious to the comfort of others:

Master Alfred could rant the soliloquies in Douglas, and, to shew the versatility of his genius, perform “Little Pickle,” with an additional scene … in which he set fire to a chintz curtain, broke some china chimney-ornaments, upset a dumb-waiter, and fired a cracker under the chair of his indulgent papa. (Anon, ‘The Pimento Family; or, Spoiled Children’, Monthly Magazine, June 1829).

Besides his or her comedic value, though, the spoiled child had a more serious side, as André Théodore Brochard suggested when he included a section on the matter in his 1865 book, Sea-Air and Sea-Bathing for Children and Invalids:

These cases too often depend upon the culpable weakness of the parents. Much more common than is generally supposed, they present a set of symptoms which it is the most difficult thing in the world to relegate to any particular organ or seat. To give them a name, which shall embrace in one term all their multitudinous, though almost identical, causes, I shall call it the disorder of spoiled children.

‘The disorder of spoiled children’, caused by over-indulgent parents who pandered to their child’s every whim, could cause a whole host of unpleasant bodily and mental effects. ‘Depraved appetites’ – for nothing but chocolate, or unripe vegetables – led to altered constitutions, the child becoming ‘lymphatic, scrofulous, and often consumptive’. There were also longer-term psychological effects of spoiling: the child indulged by his parents is given a rude awakening when he grows up, discovering that not everyone finds him so enchanting as his permissive mother and father:

…suffering under an accumulation of real and fancied ills, his misery becomes so great and insupportable, that sullen or furious insanity, or dreadful suicide may soon be expected to succeed. (James Parkinson, Observations on the excessive indulgence of children, particularly intended to show its injurious effects on their health, and the difficulties it occasions in their treatment during sickness, 1807).

Many articles placed the blame for spoiled children firmly on the heads of the parents, but particularly mothers, demonstrating that anxieties about the place of motherhood in modern life are far from a modern phenomenon. ‘In the mad race after pleasure and excitement now going on, ‘ wrote The Saturday Review in 1868, ‘the tender duties of motherhood have become simply disagreeable restraints’. Women of the middle and upper classes, caught up in new consumer society, were said to dress their children in expensive new fashions and send them to even more expensive schools, but neglect their simple moral education, instead handing them over to governesses and nurses. A short story in The London Reader of 1865, ‘The Spoiled Child’, was explicit about the potentially dire consequences of such behaviour, following young Harry Hillgrove whose early spoiling leads him to theft and alcoholism in later life. He abandons his mother and turns to a life of crime, but Mrs Hillgrove’s parenting mistakes come back to haunt her when Harry breaks into her house; she dies from shock and Harry, reflecting upon his mistakes, commits suicide.

Illustration from Judy: or, The London Serio-Comic Journal (1899).

Illustration from Judy: or, The London Serio-Comic Journal (1899).

Nineteenth-century concerns for spoiled children were not simply the stuff of sensation fiction, but drew upon contemporary ideas about the development of the nervous system and laws of heredity, considering how the process of growing up might literally – and permanently – alter the fabric of the body and brain. The most thoughtless thing that parents could do, both for the future happiness of their offspring and for the good of society more generally, was to indulge their children in ‘lumps of sugar’, ‘wine as a treat’, or ‘heated and unhealthy amusements during the holidays’. The problem was bringing the parent to recognise the folly of their behaviour. As a joke in The London Journal wryly observed:

 “There’s one good thing about spoiled children.”

“What’s that?”

“One never has them in one’s own house.”