03 August 2010

An odd coincidence

Okay, so is it a coincidence? Or is it just an instance of cosmic harmony where two of my best loved books for the fall happen to mention the same obscure historical figure? Mary Toft was an English woman living in the early to mid 18th century who convinced leading medical authorities of the day that she had given birth to rabbits. Yes, live rabbits. Apparently she had them going for quite a while and eventually 'fessed up. What an embarrassment to the Royal docs, eh?
Bill Bryson makes reference to it in his wonderful book called At Home: A Short History of Private Life in a section on medical history, particularly the woefully inadequate medical care given to women up through the 20th century. Not only was it indelicate for a doctor (always male) to actually examine his female patients, his patients didn't even have the vocabulary to describe their ills when something went amiss "down there." It's a wonder that every woman didn't die in childbirth.

In Julia Stuart's charming new novel called The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise, it's a minor character who stumbles across the interesting information about Mary Toft and then shares it with his friend Balthazar, a Beefeater living in the Tower of London, as a means of distracting his friend from mourning the death of his son.

I had read Bryson's book first and found the Mary Toft tidbit extraordinary, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when I ran across her name once more in Stuart's novel. Is there anybody out there who can calculate the chances of that happening? I dunno. But it seemed so rare that it deserved its own blogpost.


  1. Fascinating! I love when intersections occur like that. You'll have to explore Mary Toft more now.

  2. Thanks for sharing wonderful little oddities such as this!



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