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Tarrare, the Greatest Glutton of All Time

Today's competitive eaters are renowned for consuming dozens of hot dogs in a single sitting, but the unusual eaters of old performed much weirder feats. Medieval reports describe people consuming hearty helpings of stones, spiders, and snakes, among other poisonous things, and showmen were making a living touring Europe on the strength of their strange stomachs by the early 17th century.

“The Great Eater of Kent,” a 17th century English laborer named Nicholas Wood, entertained fair-goers at country festivals by consuming 60 eggs, mutton, three large pies, and a black pudding in a single sitting. In the 18th century, one Charles Tyle of Dorset ate 133 eggs in an hour alongside large quantities of bread and bacon (he then complained he hadn’t had a full supper). In 1792, according to medical historian Jan Bondeson, a French showman named M. Dufour ate a particularly Luciferian banquet in front of a packed house in Paris, including an hors d’oeuvres course of asps in hot oil, dishes of tortoise, bat, rat, and mole, an entrée of roast owl in a sauce of “glowing brimstone,” and a dessert of toads adorned with flies, crickets, spiders, and caterpillars. Dufour then swallowed all the candles on the table alongside a flaming glass of brandy, and opened his mouth wide so the audience could glimpse the flickering flames inside his throat.

But the most amazing eater ever recorded is Tarrare, an 18th-century French showman able to consume his own weight in beef by the time he was 17. It’s unclear whether Tarrare was his real name or a nickname; “bom-bom tarrare!” was a popular French expression at the time used to describe powerful explosions, and Bondeson speculates that it may have been applied to Tarrare because of his prodigious flatulence. 

Tarrare’s appearance was reportedly relatively normal, except for an enormous mouth stretched wide over badly stained teeth, and a distended belly that hung so low he could wrap it around his waist when it was empty. He was also said to sweat constantly, and emit a powerful odor. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, “he often stank to such a degree, that he could not be endured within the distance of 20 paces.” 

Born in the French countryside near Lyons in the early 1770s, Tarrare ate so much that his parents kicked him out of the house when he was in his teens. According to Bondeson, Tarrare then spent a while touring the French provinces “in the company of robbers, whores, and vagabonds” before taking up employment with a traveling quack, swallowing stones and live animals to draw attention to the charlatan’s dubious medical cures. In 1788 he left the quack’s employment and made his way to Paris, where he performed on the streets, swallowing basketfuls of apples, corks, flints, and other objects. After one such show, he suffered an acute intestinal obstruction and had to be carried to the Hôtel Dieu hospital. After being treated by the surgeon there, he offered to show off his talents by swallowing the man’s watch and chain. The surgeon was not amused, and replied that he would cut Tarrare open with his sword to recover his valuable possessions. 

When the revolutionary wars broke out, Tarrare signed up with the French army. The military rations weren’t enough for his appetite, though, and he was soon taken to the hospital at Soultz complaining of exhaustion. Despite being given quadruple rations, and chowing down on all the poultices in the apothecary, his needs remained unsatisfied. The military surgeons were so amazed they asked to keep him in the hospital for experiments. While there, Tarrare ate a meal intended for 15 German laborers, including two enormous meat pies and four gallons of milk. He also ate a live cat—breaking open its abdomen with his jaws, drinking its blood, and later vomiting up the fur and skin—as well as puppies, lizards, and snakes, which were said to be a special favorite. The doctors, which included one M. Courville and Pierre-François Percy, one of the greatest military surgeons of his day, declared themselves astonished.

After a few months in the hospital, the military board inquired about when Tarrare might return to duty, but the doctors were unwilling to part with their fascinating subject. As Bondeson describes it, M. Courville came up with an ingenious, if bizarre, plan to make Tarrare useful for both science and the military—he would courier documents with his own body. First, Courville asked Tarrare to swallow a wooden box with a document inside. Two days later, Tarrare returned from the hospital latrines with both box and document in good condition. After a repetition of the experiment at French army headquarters on the Rhine (Napoleon may or may not have been present), Tarrare was officially employed as a spy. His first task: deliver a message to a French colonel held prisoner in a Prussian fortress.

However, Tarrare’s mental abilities were apparently dwarfed by the powers of his stomach. According to a report in The London Medical and Physical Journal, Tarrare was “almost devoid of force and of ideas.” And so while the army officers told Tarrare he was swallowing papers of key strategic importance, the note he was entrusted with simply asked imprisoned French colonel to report back on any information he might have about Prussian troop movements.

It turned out the French officers were right to be concerned: Tarrare was captured outside the city of Landau almost as soon as the mission began. (This may have had something to do with the fact that he didn’t speak a word of German.) The poor glutton withstood a strip-searching and whipping without betraying his cargo, but after a day with the Prussian counter-intelligence, he finally confessed. The Prussians tied him to a bog-house and waited for his digestive system to deliver the goods. When it complied, however, they were enraged to discover such a banal message inside the wooden box—they believed, as did Tarrare, that he was carrying crucial military intel. The Prussians beat him brutally, then subjected him to a mock execution, letting him get as far as the scaffold before calling off the executioner.

Understandably terrified by his ordeal, Tarrare returned to the hospital begging Dr. Percy to cure him. Unfortunately, all of the reported solutions for excessive eating that Percy tried—tincture of opium, sour wine, tobacco pills, copious amounts of soft-boiled eggs—proved to be in vain. Tarrare found himself unable to live on the hospital’s food, and snuck out to butcher shops and back alleys, fighting street urchins and animals for scraps of decaying carrion. He even drank the blood from other patients at the hospital, and was kicked out of the hospital morgue several times for trying to eat the corpses. 

Several of the doctors complained that Tarrare would be better off in a lunatic asylum, but Percy defended his presence at the hospital. That is, until a toddler mysteriously disappeared from the wards. Tarrare was the prime suspect, and the furious doctors and porters finally drove him away from the hospital for good.

For the next four years Tarrare’s whereabouts are unclear, but in 1798 he showed up at a hospital in Versailles, so ill he could barely rise from his hospital bed. Tarrare believed his troubles stemmed from swallowing a golden fork, but the doctors recognized him as suffering from advanced tuberculosis. About a month after Percy was notified of his admittance, Tarrare was struck with terrible diarrhea. He died a few days later. 

The doctors were loathe to undertake an autopsy—apparently the corpse became “prey to a horrible corruption” soon after death—but the chief surgeon at the Versailles hospital overcame his disgust and opened up the cadaver. He found that Tarrare’s gullet was unusually wide, and when the jaws were forced open, that he could see all the way down into Tarrare’s enormous stomach, which was covered in pus and filled almost the entire abdominal cavity. The liver and gallbladder were similarly oversized. According to The London Medical and Physical Journal, "The stench of the body was so insupportable that M. Tessier, chief surgeon of the hospital, could not carry his investigation to any further extent." 

The cause of Tarrare’s extreme gluttony has never been diagnosed. According to Bondeson, no case resembling Tarrare has been published in modern medicine. And while the reports of his eating habits beggar belief, they were recorded by some of the foremost medical authorities of his time, and well-known among the Parisians who delighted in his macabre displays. Percy wrote in a memoir: "Let a person imagine all that domestic and wild animals, the most filthy and ravenous, are capable of devouring, and they may form some idea of the appetite … of Tarrare."

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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