The Doctor Who Modernized Royal Births—in the 1970s

Gary Stone/Getty Images
Gary Stone/Getty Images

When Prince William eventually ascends to the English throne, he’ll be the first British monarch ever born in a hospital. And he has a man named George Pinker to thank for that.

Royal births have always been fraught affairs due to the thorny issues of birthright and succession. Throughout history, English royal women were expected to give birth in rooms filled with spectators and witnesses—in part to avoid a pretender to the throne being switched with the royal baby at birth.

That made childbirth a grueling ceremony for queens, many of whom had to give birth to stillborn or dying children in the company of scores of strangers. In 1688, after 11 tragic attempts to produce an heir to James II’s throne, Mary of Modena gave birth in front of an audience of 67 people. (It was even worse for Marie Antoinette, who gave birth in 1778 in front of so many people the onlookers nearly crushed her.) And even after births became more private affairs, archbishops and officials attended them as late as 1936.

Of course, doctors have long been part of that crowd. The royal household—the group of support staff that helps royals at their various residences—has included physicians for hundreds of years, who have often been called upon to perform various gynecological duties for royal women. They have frequently been dispatched to serve other family members, too, especially those giving birth to important heirs.

Even when hospitals became popular places for childbirth at the turn of the last century, English royals continued having kids at home in their palaces, castles, and houses. Elizabeth II was delivered via Caesarean section in 1926 at her grandmother’s house in London. When she became queen, her royal surgeon gynecologists recommended she deliver her children at home, bringing in equipment to turn the space into a maternity ward.

Yet it was one of her gynecologists, John Peel, who ended up changing his tune on delivering children in hospitals, and in the 1970s he published an influential report that recommended all women do so. When he stepped down in 1973, the queen’s new royal gynecologist, George Pinker, insisted the royals get in line, too.

Pinker was different from his predecessors. For one, he skipped out on a potential career in opera to practice medicine. He had been offered a contract with an opera company, but when asked to choose between music and medicine, the choice was clear. Instead, he stayed involved with music—becoming assistant concert director at the Reading Symphony Orchestra and vice president of the London Choral Society—while maintaining his medical career.

He was also the youngest doctor ever to practice as royal surgeon gynecologist—just 48 when he was appointed. He supported controversial medical advances like in vitro fertilization. And he insisted that his patients’ welfare—not tradition—dictate royal births.

“It is very important for mothers to accept modern medical assistance and not to feel guilty if they need epidural or a Caesarean,” he told an interviewer. Pinker recommended that pregnant women lead as normal a life as possible—no easy task for royals whose every move was spied on and picked apart by the public. In fact, the doctor being anywhere near the queen or her family, even when he was not there to treat a pregnant woman, was seen as a sign that a royal was pregnant.

When Princess Diana delivered her first son, it was at a royal room in a hospital. “Most people marveled at the decision to have the royal baby in such surroundings rather than Buckingham Palace,” wrote The Guardian’s Penny Chorlton. Turns out the surroundings were pretty plush anyway: Diana delivered in her very own wing of the hospital.

Pinker served as the queen’s royal gynecologist for 17 years, delivering nine royal babies in all, including Prince William and Prince Harry. All were born at hospitals. So were William’s two children—under supervision of the royal gynecologist, of course.

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

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