Bibliotheca Excrementa

The February 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine has an interesting article describing the life cycle of sewage called Wasteland: A journey through the American cloaca by Frederick Kaufman. Actually, the most fascinating aspect of the whole piece was a short digression on the history of waste and its uses throughout history. Along with a compendium of obscure terms for excrement:

egesta, dejecta, sharn, stale, skite, dynga, ordure, oriental sulfur, occidental sulfur, carbon humanum

the author mentions a number of “classic” texts on the subject:

The Secrets of Physicke, London, 16331,2
Drek-Apothek, Christian Franz Paullini, Frankfurt, 1696 (German)
Chylologia Historico-Medica, Martin Schurig, Dresden, 1725 (Latin)
Scatalogic Rites of All Nations, John Bourke, Washington D.C., 1891

All of the books are available at Google Books in one form or another.

Book Cover

From A Storehouse of Physicall and Philosophicall Secrets

1 This book contains instructions for the preparation of “oyles” for the treatment of various conditions such as epilepsy, cankers and hangovers that involve feces and ground-up skull:

To di∫till oyle of a mans Excrements

Take the doung of a yong ſanguine childe or man, as much as you will, and diſtill it twiſe in a Limbecke of glaſſe. This helpeth the Canker and mollifieth Fiſtulaes: comforteth thoſe that are troubled with Allopecia.

The make Oyle of the skull of a man.

Take the skull of a man that was never buried, and beate it into powder, then diſtill it againe, and this you ſhall doe three times upone the feces, and at the laſt give it ſtrong fire, untill the oyle be come forth: the which ye ſhall ſeparate by Balneo, and keepe it cloſe ſhut in a glaſſe. The doſe is three graines, againſt the falling ſickneſſe. Ye ſhall underſtand, that there is alſo a ſalt to be drawn forth of the feces, the which is of great vertue againſt the aforeſaid diſeaſes being drunke with wine, as is aforeſaid.

2 The edition available at Google Books is actually called “A Storehouse of Physicall and Philosophicall Secrets” and is attributed to the great 16th century alchemist Paracelsus. The only place I saw it listed with the name given above was in a footnote in the Bourke book, where I suspect Kaufman gathered most of his historical digression. It took some digging to find the actual text. Interestingly, Paracelsus is nowhere mentioned in the Storehouse text. A bit more searching revealed that this book had originally been published in 1575. The details behind this attribution are given in Bibliographical Notes on Histories of Inventions and Books of Secrets, Fifth Supplement, p130-132.

» Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2008 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link

Your Inner Fish

A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body

by Neil Shubin
Your Inner Fish

The reason I picked up this book can ultimately be attributed to a remark in Jennifer Clack’s more scholarly “Gaining Ground”, perhaps the definitive exploration of the rise of tetrapods. It was something to the effect of “it’s hard to look at your limbs and not think of fins.” This book’s title spoke to just those feelings (which I shared.)

Neil Shubin is in fact a colleague of Clack’s, who managed to secure his place in the annals of paleontology by discovering what has been wildly hailed as a true example of the transition to limbed creatures, the Tiktaalik. (See this excellent graphic showing the evolution of the limb.)

Shubin expresses the same obvious delight as Clack in describing his discoveries. He uses the example of the Tiktaalik as a launching point to tell a very compact history of the evolution of the human body. Moving forward through time to show, in just one example, the development of the middle ear bones from the jaw and gill bones of fish; and back through time to show man’s intimate relationship to the very simplest life forms through our shared Hox genes, which direct embryonic development.

Much of this ground has been covered before, for example, in Dawkin’s recent Ancestor’s Tale, but this short work also manages to capture some of the adventure and thrill of being a working paleontologist.

» Posted: Monday, February 11, 2008 | Comments (0) | Permanent Link