Monthly Archives: April 2010

History of Medicine Flagship Down by the Bows

The Wellcome Trust Center for the History of Medicine at University College London has announced its closure. This will occur in a wind down process over two years.

The announcement came abruptly, and apparently quite unexpectedly at the end of the UCL term. Even today, the Center’s website declares

The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL continues to build on its proud tradition of excellence in furthering the academic study of the history of medicine and an awareness of its importance.

Current students will be able to complete their studies there, but the fate of the faculty and the teaching program after that is unclear. The Wellcome Trust says that funding of history of medicine studies will continue, and the Wellcome Collection and Library are apparently not at risk.

In my view, this is a serious blow to our discipline. First, the Wellcome Center has enjoyed an excellent reputation, and its scholars have produced a very respectable body of scholarship over the years of the Center’s existence. Secondly, the Center has been a source of respectable visibility in the helter-skelter academic–and lay–world.

And now it is to go away, at a time when “history” itself seems to be under some attack, and our little corner of it–that of military or naval medicine–is almost disappearingly small.

All the more reason for us to be personally and collectively more visible, more “public” in our work.

Captain Cook’s Fish Poisoning

Today’s (11 April 2010) New York Times Magazine, features a “Diagnosis” article, Fish Tale by Lisa Sanders MD, in which she describes a dramatic case of ciguatera poisoning from ingestion of tainted fish. Dr Sanders attributes the first description of the effects of the ciguatara neurotoxin to Surgeon’s Mate John Anderson. A very clear description of the bizarre effects of the toxin is found in Anderson’s reports from the 1772 – 1775 expedition of exploration by Royal Navy Captain James Cook to southern Pacific islands.

Neurologist Michael Mahoney, in a 2005 Neurology article suggests an even earlier source: Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernendez de Quiros, also exploring Pacific islands, in 1606. An on line article from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization gives the nod for the earliest description of ciguatera fish poisoning to Peter Martyr d’ Anghera, an Italian humanist chronicler of the Spanish exploration on the Caribbean, in 1511.

Whenever the first report was made, and despite the fact that indigenous populations likely knew of the illness, early western knowledge of the matter clearly falls within the realm of “maritime medicine”.

Several ciguatera toxins have now been identified. The complex organic molecules are produced by certain strains of the motile dinoflagellate Gambierdensus toxicus, resident in coral reef areas. The organisms and their toxins are ingested by small bottom-feeding fish, with the toxins then bio-concentrated as they are ingested up the predatory fish food chain. The toxin is very durable and cooking does not destroy the toxic effects. Up to 50,000 people are affected each year, and because of widespread fish commerce, the disease is no longer confined to coastal areas near coral reefs. The toxin produces a constellation of bizarre symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, muscle weakness, numbness of hands and feet, and a curious feature that makes cold foods seem hot. Rarely fatal (1%), the effects usually wear off within a few months, though some victims can have persistent mild symptoms for up to 20 years.

The Foundation for the History of Navy Medicine

The Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt was founded to provide financial support for the work of the Society for the History of Navy Medicine (see “About” page). Last week the Foundation Board of Directors met and established two new goals for 2010-2011.

First, to find funding for at least one annual $750 travel grant to permit a graduate student to present a scholarly paper at the Society’s Annual Meeting and Papers Session. Don’t hesitate to “Comment” your suggestions of possible sources of funding for these Grants.

The second recommended initiative calls for us to find an appropriate medium to publish the papers given at Society Annual Meetings. Please “comment” your suggestions for possible resources in this regard.