The Substitute (1856-57)

The first volume of the Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer ended in September 1856, having begun in April that year. Henry Tibbats Stainton (1856-90), who had established and edited this periodical, did not believe that such a publication was required during the winter months, as most entomologists ceased to collect at this time. There would no longer be any  information to share regarding the capture of insects, as the majority of species were only active during the warmer months. The Intelligencer therefore ‘hibernated’ until the following April, when the collecting ‘season’ would recommence.  However, such was the popularity Stainton’s periodical had gained in this short time that a plan was put in place to fill this temporary void with another publication, and thus the Substitute was created.


Title for the Substitute‘s first issue

The editor of the Substitute was John William Douglas (1814-1905), a long-term friend of Stainton’s, and it was printed by Edward Newman (1801-1876). The periodical’s title was a play on words, as the Substitute was both a replacement (or ‘substitute’) for the Intelligencer, and also an ‘entomological exchange facilitator’. Collectors were not entirely idle during the winter months, but instead used this time to consolidate their collections by identifying and preparing specimens for display. Often they had taken multiples of a particular species, and through the periodical they could advertise to ‘substitute’ these ‘duplicates’ for others. Typically, a correspondent would write a list of the insects they wished to exchange, along with their address, and readers could then peruse these notices and respond to those who possessed the insects they desired. Douglas declared ‘the trouble is not much; it need only be done once, and we shall thus be the “Substitute” for lots of letters’.


Extract from a poem entitled ‘Beetling for Beginners’, describing the different families of Coleoptera

The Substitute also described itself as an ‘entomologist’s fire-side companion’, publishing interesting or entertaining articles to amuse its readers as they remained indoors during the inclement weather. In this spirit, it published picaresque accounts of ‘entomological rambles’ taken in the summer months. Roland Trimen, seventeen years old and with a feted scientific career ahead of him, contributed a florid account of such a trip to the Isle of Wight, which conveys a sense of breathless excitement in the pursuit of Lepidoptera: ‘Here comes something! […] A jump and a twist of the net! We’ve got him!’. Poetry – entomological in theme, of course – also featured. Newman and Douglas both turned their hands to writing verse, usually doggerel in style, and the Substitute printed a number of these. A representative example is ‘The Hymenoptera Described’, which gives an exhaustive description of how to identify members of this insect family. The poem therefore served the dual purpose of entertaining and informing the readers.

In future years, Stainton found that there was ample material to ensure the Intelligencer could be continued over the winter months. The ongoing popularity of specimen exchange provided more than enough letters to publish, and entomologists developed new techniques for collecting hibernating insects (usually by digging them up), thereby allowing collectors to continue their activities throughout the year.

‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

hot cross buns

“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!



[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

Kenneth William Millican (1853-1915): medical practitioner and journalist

In an earlier blog post, I profiled the Midland Medical Miscellany, a proudly provincial medical journal which was conducted by Kenneth William Millican. As editor, he framed himself as a spokesperson for ordinary provincial practitioners. Yet he went on to have a peripatetic and cosmopolitan career, as this post reveals.

Millican was born in Leicester in relatively prosperous circumstances. His father William was an architect, a member of the Conservative Party, and a colonel in the Volunteers. The young Millican was educated at Atherstone Grammar School in Warwickshire, and later Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honours in the classical tripos. He then entered St Mary’s Hospital in London with a natural science scholarship. During his medical training, some of his case notes were printed in the Lancet and the BMJ; early glimmers of his interest in medical journalism.[1] In 1879 Millican took the diploma of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) and a year later he became a licentiate of Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.[2]

Despite his reasonably illustrious education, Millican’s medical career had humble beginnings. He worked as a ship’s surgeon for the Ocean Steamship Company. Openings such as these provided immediate paid work, but they were widely considered to be temporary situations for young men rather than a long-term career choice. In The Student’s Guide to the Medical Profession (1878), Charles Bell Keetley suggested that a sea voyage might restore the constitution of young men exhausted by their medical education, but warned that more than a year at sea would be ‘demoralising’ and might drive a man to drink.[3]


Kineton Village, where Millican practised (Credit: Arlo 715, Creative Commons).

Following his brief time at sea, Millican soon settled as a general practitioner in Kineton, a village in Warwickshire not far from where he went to school. It was common for newly qualified medical men to return to their roots, since they could use their family’s local connections and standing to attract patients.

At the outset of his practice, Millican launched the Midland Medical Miscellany, which he edited from 1881-5. The journal sought to represent ordinary provincial practitioners, implying that they were excluded from the mainstream medical press. Yet Millican was simultaneously a prolific contributor to journals such as the Lancet and the BMJ. He offered them observations from his practice, commenting on subjects as varied as fracture of the leg,[4] the relief of toothache,[5] and treatment for facial neuralgia.[6] He was also active in local medical societies. In 1882, he showed samples of bacilli from cases of diarrhoea to the Midland Medical Society.[7] Millican’s efforts to make a name for himself were rewarded. The Lancet’s overview of medical activity in 1882 namechecked Millican as having advanced the therapeutics of intestinal obstruction.[8]

One of Millican’s principal medical interests at this time was the ‘germ theory’ of disease. In 1882, he presented a paper on ‘The Etiology of the Acute Specific Diseases’ to the section on public medicine at the Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA). Drawing on his own experiences and championing the interests of the provincial practitioner, he argued that the aetiology of infectious diseases was much easier to trace in rural districts. While endorsing the germ theory of disease, Millican maintained that – from his observation – some infectious diseases (such as scarlet fever) could materialise de novo and that these ‘self-originating’ cases were more likely to present atypically.[9] A year later, he produced a book on The Evolution of Morbid Germs (1883). His obituary in the Lancet would commend the volume for its ‘remarkable foresight’ in applying ‘Darwinian doctrines’ to disease.[10]

Millican not only commented on clinical matters, but a range of issues surrounding professional life. In 1883, for example, he complained to the BMJ that his paper had been ‘crowded out’ at a sectional meeting of the BMA due to poor scheduling and overrunning presentations from more senior colleagues.[11] In 1884, he criticised the opening hours of the RCS’s library and museum in a letter to the Lancet. He suggested that early closing was ‘prohibitive’ for ‘juniors’ who spent their days engaged in study and tuition.[12] In letters such as these, Millican represented himself as industrious but overlooked. Though he succeeded in getting his name into print, he seemed to identify with the portrait of the hard-working and unappreciated general practitioner which he put forward in the Miscellany.

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, enterprising medical men often abandoned provincial general practice to pursue specialist medicine in the metropolis and Millican’s career followed this trajectory. After his time in Warwickshire, he set himself up as a specialist in throat diseases in Wellbeck Street, London. In 1887, he was appointed as surgeon to the Margaret Street Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest and Throat, where he specialised as a laryngologist.[13] He also worked as surgeon to the West End Hospital for Paralysis and the Throat Department of the Queen’s Jubilee Hospital in Queen’s Gate, South West London.[14] Though popular with patients, some professionals regarded specialties as self-serving and akin to quackery.[15] In 1887, Millican wrote to the Lancet to reject claims he was a homeopath and to staunchly defend his status as a regular, rational practitioner. Nevertheless, he highlighted his indebtedness to certain homeopathic practitioners and the drugs they had introduced. [16]

Despite his apparently dogged determination to advance his medical career, Millican also pursued other interests. While in London, he produced two volumes of verse – ‘Smoke Clouds’ (co-written with Dr A.B. Clarke) and ‘Passion Spray’. Millican’s obituary in the Lancet remarked on his display of ‘literary capacity’, noting that he showed ‘considerable command of metre’. It also commented on his theatrical interests. In 1887, he had helped to produce a domestic drama, Fettered Freedom, at the Vaudeville, and he was also known as an amateur actor. Like his father, Millican took up voluntary military service as well, serving as Captain in the 9th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. His obituary remarked that he was ‘a thoroughgoing soldier in spirit’ and ‘an authority on military administration’.[17]

California Mines

Gold mining in California (Wellcome Images)

After about five years working as a specialist in London, Millican left the country in 1892. He was hired as a surgeon by the British and Foreign Steam Navigation Company, and subsequently became medical officer to mining works in Mexico. Three years later he resigned this post for an appointment with the Mountain Copper Mines in California, where he worked until 1897.

Once established in America, Millican pursued a career as a medical editor and journalist. In 1897/8 (reports vary), he became associate editor of the New York Medical Journal and in 1904 he assumed ‘editorship and entire charge’ of the St Louis Medical Review.[18] Two years later, the BMJ recorded him participating in a meeting of the American Medical Editors’ Association. He voiced his opinion that not all medical advertising should be decried, but that greater honesty was needed.[19] In 1907, the BMJ remarked that the St Louis Medical Review had become ‘one of the most readable of the American journals’ under Millican’s ‘able editorship’, but that it was shifting from weekly to monthly publication.[20] By this time, however, Millican had joined the editorial staff of the Journal of the American Medical Association. His journalistic activities were tracked in the British professional press, which avidly followed the progress of medical journalism on the other side of the Atlantic.

Obituary Millican

Millican’s obituary in the BMJ

In 1911, Millican became Assistant Editor of the Lancet, joining the journal he had once covertly attacked through the Miscellany. Millican’s first outing as an editor was not even mentioned in his obituaries. Perhaps the Miscellany (which folded in 1895) had already faded into relatively obscurity, though the Lancet subsequently printed a follow-up note to say that the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’s librarian had pointed out their oversight.[21]

Millican died on 28 November 1915, the day after his 62nd birthday; his obituaries reported that he had been ill with heart trouble for some time. Married twice, he left a grown-up son and daughter from his first marriage (both had settled in the United States), and a 12-year-old daughter from his second wife, who survived him.[22]

Millican seems to have been enterprising, energetic and industrious and his working life illustrates the mobility of medical men in this period.  In its obituary of Millican, the Lancet reflected on his meandering career path. It quoted a letter from his friends, which described him as ‘a man of singularly versatile and varied talent; so versatile, indeed, that it probably operated against his obtaining a great success in any one direction’.[23] Nevertheless, his patchwork career saw him ascend the proverbial ladder and secure recognition for his medical journalism.

Millican’s visibility in the medical press allows us to put together a detailed portrait of his career. He supplied clinical communications and correspondence to the leading professional journals, conducted his own periodical, and joined the editorial teams of high-profile journals. His journalistic endeavours were recorded in ‘Literary Notes’ and finally in his obituaries. Reading across these different forms of content in the medical press enables researchers to re-construct medical careers of the past.

[1] ‘A Mirror of Hospital Practice, British and Foreign: St Mary’s Hospital’, Lancet, 19 July 1879, pp. 80-1. ‘Reports of Medical and Surgical Practice in the Hospitals and Asylums of Great Britain and Ireland’, BMJ, 19 July 1879, p. 87.

[2] ‘Obituary: Kenneth William Millican’, BMJ, 11 December 1915, p. 878.

[3] Charles Bell Keetley, The Student’s Guide to the Medical Profession (London: Macmillan, 1878), pp. 29-30.

[4] Kenneth W. Millican, ‘Surgical Memoranda: Fracture of the Leg’, BMJ, 20 May 1882, p. 738.

[5] Millican, ‘Letters, Notes, and Answers to Correspondents: The Relief of Toothache’, BMJ, 1 September 1883, p. 455.

[6] Millican, ‘Correspondence: Gelseminum in Facial Neuralgia’, BMJ, 26 March 1881, p. 490.

[7] ‘Midland Medical Society’, Lancet, 23 December 1882, pp. 1078-9 (p. 1078).

[8] ‘The Annus Medicus 1882’, Lancet, 30 December 1882, pp. 1119-31 (p. 1122).

[9] ‘The Etiology of the Acute Specific Diseases’, BMJ, 30 September 1882, pp. 629-31.

[10] ‘Obituary: Kenneth William Millican’, Lancet, 11 December 1915, pp. 1319-20 (p. 1319).

[11] ‘Correspondence: The Sectional Meetings: A Grievance’, BMJ, 11 August 1883, p. 299.

[12] Millican, ‘Notes, Short Comments, and Answers to Correspondents: The Library of the College of Surgeons’, Lancet, 22 November 1884, p. 941.

[13] ‘Margaret Street Infirmary’, BMJ, 9 April 1887, p. 797.

[14] ‘Medical News: Medical Appointments’, BMJ, 16 April 1887, pp. 859-60 (p. 859).

[15] See Lindsay Granshaw, ‘ “Fame and Fortune by Means of Bricks and Mortar”: The Medical Profession and Specialist Hospitals in Britain 1800-1948’, in The Hospital in History, ed. by Granshaw and Roy Porter (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 199-220.

[16] ‘Correspondence: [Untitled]’, Lancet, 23 April 1887, p. 849.

[17] ‘Obituary’, Lancet, 11 December 1915, p. 1319.

[18] ‘Literary Notes’, BMJ, 24 September 1904, pp. 761-3 (p. 762).

[19] ‘Medical News: The American Medical Editors’ Association’, BMJ, 30 June 1906, p. 1547.

[20] ‘Literary Notes’, BMJ, 27 July 1907, pp. 213-14 (p. 213).

[21] ‘Obituary’, Lancet, 18 December 1915, p. 1372-3 (p. 1372).

[22] ‘Obituary’, Lancet, 11 December 1915, p. 1320.

[23] ‘Obituary’, Lancet, 11 December 1915, p. 1319.



Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer (1856-61)

‘Why do entomologists need a weekly newspaper?’ asked the very first number of the Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer in April 1856. This periodical was the work of one man, Henry Tibbats Stainton (1822-91), who ran the Intelligencer at his own expense and acted as the sole editor. The bulk of each issue was devoted to short notices written by correspondents, detailing the insects they had captured and giving exact information regarding the species, appearance, the date, weather conditions, and collecting methods used. In this way, it operated in much the same way as a private correspondence network, though on a much larger scale, with a readership of around 600 at its peak. Insect populations are inherently transitory, varying from week to week – and even day to day – depending on climatic conditions and a host of other factors. Rapid communication between collectors is therefore of paramount importance, and the Intelligencer aimed to provide a means by which entomologists could keep abreast of each other’s activity. Stainton hoped that the quick exchange of information among collectors would allow each individual to work with increased efficiency, completing more work in a single season than had hitherto been possible in two or three.

Insect collecting was widespread hobby among nineteenth-century society.  The readers of the Intelligencer were diverse in terms of class, if not in gender. Stainton himself remarked that no women wrote to the periodical, despite the many women who actively participated in entomology during this period. Costing just a single penny per issue, correspondents to the Intelligencer ranged from working-class collectors, such as the Sheffield razor grinder, James Batty, to gentleman naturalists such as Charles Darwin and John Lubbock. Darwin made use of the periodical on a number of occasions, first enquiring about the pollination of British orchids by certain moth species, but also playfully writing a letter on behalf of his children. This note read: ‘we three very young collectors have lately taken, in the parish of Down, six miles from Bromley, Kent, the following beetles’, and was signed in the names of Francis, Leonard, and Horace Darwin. Francis would later fondly recall this incident in an edited collection of his father’s correspondence.

Darwin Children, Intelligencer, 6, p. 99.

Charles Darwin’s letter to the Intelligencer, written on behalf of his three sons.

Each issue of the Intelligencer consisted of eight pages, and could easily have fitted into a pocket and been taken into the field on a collecting trip. The periodical rarely contained illustrations, as these would have driven up the cost of production, but occasionally woodcuts were included to aid insect identification. For example, the issue for 2nd May 1857 contains an image of Gastropacha ilicifolia – the small lappet moth – which ‘at rest looks amazingly like a dead leaf’. This species is now considered to be extinct in Britain, but at the time of the Intelligencer‘s publication, it could be found by attentive entomologists on ‘Cannoch Chase and the Northern Moors’. The adults emerge during late April and early May, hence why Stainton chose to publish the illustration at this time, thereby training his readers to be observant. He notes that the ‘varied fringes’ of the wings ‘ought to catch the eye of the keen collector: dead and withered leaves are not often marked with such regularity’. The periodical was therefore closely tied to the practices of natural history, with the form and content shaped by such seasonal variations.

Intelligencer pic

A woodcut of the ‘Small Lappet’ moth on the title page of the Intelligencer.

The Intelligencer also facilitated the exchange of specimens, as collectors could place adverts listing the insects they had collected in abundance, and were therefore willing to swap for others. Such a system was open to abuse, and this led to acrimonious debates among readers who felt they had been defrauded of their hard-won specimens. This controversy, along with the strain of single-handedly producing an issue a week, may have been among the reasons Stainton chose to discontinue the Intelligencer after only five years. Despite its short lifespan, Stainton’s periodical left a considerable void in the periodical market, and there were various attempts to replace it. For example, Thomas Blackburn, a teenager who had first begun to correspond with Stainton through the Intelligencer, began his own (almost identical) periodical entitled the Weekly Entomologist (1861-63).

exchange intelligencer

A typical exchange advertisement published in the Intelligencer.

The Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer exemplifies how a periodical could bring into being a community of naturalists, despite the many differences between the various readers and correspondents. Those who contributed to the periodical embodied the whole spectrum of nineteenth-century natural history, including those who pursued butterflies for sport and aesthetic pleasure, and those such as Stainton who considered themselves to be rigorous men of science. The practical aspects of collecting specimens were the common thread that bound these individuals together.

Play the Mind Boggling Medical History card game today!

Mind-Boggling Medical History

  • Eating too many bananas makes you grow more body hair by increasing the level of potassium.
  • Maggots are used in hospitals to clean infected wounds.
  • Excessive cycling can cause permanent damage to the muscles in the face.*

Look at the statements above. What do you think when you see them? Do they refer to current medical ideas? Are they medical practices from the past? Or are the theories mentioned entirely fictional?  

These are just some of the weird and wonderful statements we put to people who play Mind-Boggling Medical History, a game developed by Dr Sally Frampton (University of Oxford) and colleagues, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game which is designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys and wandering wombs to transplanted heads and dogs who detect diseases, the game challenges players to look at a series of statements and decide which concern current medical practice, which are based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which we have … well … just made up! Players can choose from a number of rounds related to different medical themes, including ‘sex and reproduction’, ‘animals’, ‘mind’ and ‘treatment’. We have produced both a physical card pack, available to those working in education, nursing, public engagement and museums, as well as an online version that is freely available to all (

Developed in collaboration with the Royal College of Nursing, and drawing on the interdisciplinary work of the ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ project (headed by Professor of English Literature Sally Shuttleworth), Mind-Boggling Medical History has been created with museum visitors, school students, and University nursing and medical students in mind. Accompanying lesson plans and learning resources for use with GCSE History and BSc Nursing students are available to download for free on our website.

The game is intended to show players how historical theories can prompt questions about current understandings of medicine, the need for health and medical practitioners to stay up-to-date in their field, and the impact that changes in medical knowledge can have on patient care. The game was developed into a more sophisticated resource after playing it with museum visitors at a series of public engagement events in both Oxford and London. The aim is to get people thinking about medicine in its past and present contexts and show that the differences between the two are not always clear or straightforward. Faced with tobacco enemas, heroin-laced medicines and an enthusiastic reliance on smelling urine to diagnose disease, it can sometimes be difficult to see beyond our own incredulity at how illness was treated at different points in the past, and to instead consider why certain theories and practices emerge when they do.

Mind-Boggling Medical History encourages users to look more closely at how ideas change in medicine, how they can often come in and out of fashion (think leeches!) and how modern-day medicine can equally play host to bizarre and unexpected ideas and treatments. Sometimes the truth can seem stranger than fiction.


Constructing Scientific Communities:

*A: (1) Fictional; (2) Present; (3) Past

Arabella Kenealy (1859-1938): Medical woman, author and eugenicist

NB: This article contains references to eugenicist ideas and descriptions of miscarriage that readers may find upsetting.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which we typically mark by highlighting the achievements of pioneering women in history. Last year, I appeared in a video for ConSciCom discussing the Victorian medical-woman movement, talking about how early female practitioners paved the way for later generations of women in medicine. There is immense value in highlighting the inspirational activities of our female forerunners; it improves the visibility of women’s history and helps to redress traditionally male-dominated narratives. However, in doing so, we also risk sanitising or erasing more problematic aspects of women’s history. Not all ‘pioneering’ women can or should be treated as proto-feminist icons.

The subject of this profile – Arabella Kenealy, an early medical woman and author, who was also an outspoken eugenicist – deftly illustrates this. As Angelique Richardson has shown, there was considerable interaction between the New Woman and eugenicist movements at the fin de siècle,[1]  and Kenealy was a particularly prolific and extreme spokesperson on degeneration.

Arabella Kenealy

Born in Portslade, East Sussex in 1859, Kenealy was one of eleven children from the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth Kenealy. Her father was a barrister, who earned notoriety for his eccentric conduct when he acted as counsel during the Tichborne Case. The young Kenealy was educated at home, and she later studied at the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1883, she was licensed by the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, the first licensing body in the UK to admit women. She went on to practise medicine in London and Watford between 1884 and ‘94.

In 1893, her novel Dr Janet of Harley Street appeared, amid a vogue for fiction about medical women.[2] The narrative tells the story of Phyllis Eve, a young woman who runs away from her dissipated husband on her wedding day. She finds refuge with Dr Janet Doyle, a successful physician who attempts to make Phyllis her protégé.

Dr Janet is a pragmatic, confident and capable medical woman, who has a large and prosperous practice. Yet the story largely perpetuates gender stereotypes. Women doctors were often seen as androgynous or unconventional figures, and Janet fits this archetype – she is masculine in appearance and describes herself as having a ‘neuter-nature’. [3] By contrast, Phyllis is almost hyper-feminine – sensitive, innocent, and highly-strung. Whereas Janet thrives in medicine, Phyllis wilts from the pressures of study. The narrative is interested in medical education and practice, but it is largely concerned with Phyllis’s attempts to escape her reprobate husband and find love with Janet’s cousin, Paul. The story unfolds as a battle between Janet and Paul for Phyllis’s future. He insists that ‘[a] woman like that is made for love and home and children’ rather than ‘skeletons and pharmacopeias’.[4] He is proven right, and the novel implies that only some (atypical) women are suited to medical work.

In an earlier blog post, I profiled one of Kenealy’s contemporaries, Margaret Todd, the author of Mona Maclean, Medical Student (1892). This novel has aged relatively well, retaining much of its humour and charm, and its independent heroine remains sympathetic and engaging. By contrast, Dr Janet now seems distinctly unpalatable and even shocking in places, both in its more restrictive attitude towards gender roles and its scorn towards the working classes. The titular character vehemently warns of the dangers of degeneration, presenting working-class sexuality as a threat. In one scene, she attends poor patients at the hospital, asking the parents of ‘sickly or evilly-disposed children’ if they are ‘not ashamed to have brought such “human rubbish” into existence’.[5]

The novel was also considered rather outlandish at the time of publication, however. Whereas Mona Maclean is a romance in the realist mode, Dr Janet is a sensationalist and melodramatic novel, with a plotline that encompasses a faked death, bigamy, and adultery. In the closing chapters, the titular character even persuades Phyllis’s dissolute husband to commit suicide, to release his young wife from their doomed marriage. Reviewing the novel, journalist Hilda Gregg suggested that this method of dispatching the villain was ‘highly ingenious’, adding that ‘[i]n Miss Kenealy’s opinion, it is also highly moral in character, but this is a matter on which a very different view may be held’.[6]

Shortly after the novel’s publication, Kenealy contracted diphtheria and retired from active medical practice due to ill-health. She increasingly focused on writing both popular fiction and articles for magazines such as The Nineteenth Century and Eugenics Review. In Dr Janet, the eponymous character represents sexual difference as the ‘acme of development’, positing her own ‘neuter-nature’ as an aberration.[7] Kenealy’s later writing espoused similar views on evolution and sex. It implied that Nature was unconcerned with women’s physical or intellectual prowess, and more interested in procreation. Unlike many of her fellow medical women, Kenealy endorsed conventional femininity and gender roles, fearing that women’s work would detract from their most important vocation: motherhood. She presented women as passionless creatures, who needed to conserve their energies for reproduction.[8] Her book Feminism and Sex Extinction (1920), as its title suggests, concentrated on what she perceived as the harmful effects of the women’s rights movement. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) branded it ‘an interesting study in modern sociology’, and one that would confirm the views of those who saw ‘nought but harm in votes for women’.[9]

As with many eugenicists, Kenealy’s fixation with the decline of the national stock included a concern with congenital illnesses, including venereal disease. In 1895, she wrote a letter to the BMJ, which appeared under the title ‘A Question of Conscience’. This is the first known example of a woman doctor attending venereal disease in private practice.[11] The correspondence records a case where Kenealy withheld treatment from a pregnant women with syphilis, who appeared to be approaching a miscarriage. The patient had previously suffered several miscarriages and borne one child with congenital syphilis. Kenealy characterised her patient as ‘a wreck of a young woman’, dehumanising the existing child with reference to its ‘dull misshapen head’.[10] Kenealy asked the BMJ’s readers for their opinion on her handling of the case.

The letter raised questions about medical ethics and morality and Kenealy’s approach drew criticism from some of her contemporaries. The BMJ later printed a letter from A.G. Welsford, who argued that allowing or enabling miscarriages whenever there was chance of inherited disease amounted to ‘a radical method of eliminating unhealthy strains in the race’. He anticipated it would lead to ‘terrible abuses’, and contended that it was not for doctors to decide whether or not a particular life had ‘value’.[12] In a later letter, Kenealy said that she appreciated ‘the position of trust held by the physician’. She denied that she was advocating euthanasia but claimed that practitioners should ‘allow’ Nature to ‘cast off’ a foetus with congenital syphilis.[13]She continued to use graphic and dehumanising language while defending her position. The BMJ shut down further correspondence on the matter, as it often did with lengthy and inflammatory exchanges.

Across her career, Kenealy was recognised as both a woman doctor and an author. Like Todd, her literary and medical identities intersected, though sometimes in less affirmative ways. In 1896, the BMJ printed a critique of her short story, ‘A Human Vivisection’, in which a Professor vivisects a drunk man. An anonymous reviewer lambasted the plotline, suggesting that if a writer who appeared on the Medical Register believed a practitioner capable of such acts, she should ‘publicly […] disassociate’ herself from the profession. If not, she should do other than ‘slander’ her peers.[14] In a rejoinder, Kenealy emphasised her pride in the profession and pointed out that other authors (such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle) were not attacked for their dubious portraits of medical men. The BMJ inserted an editorial apology, saying it regretted any ‘misrepresentation’ as to Kenealy’s intentions.[15] Kenealy remained active in medical, cultural and public spheres. She campaigned against vivisection, giving evidence to the 1912 Royal Commission, and she also became interested in occultism. She died in Marylebone, London in November 1938.

Kenealy is not the type of woman to be reclaimed as a proto-feminist icon. Her views on eugenics and sexual politics make for distinctly troubling reading. While they partly reflect contemporary ideologies, they were also regarded as controversial and even abhorrent by her peers. Nevertheless, it is important to engage with problematic female ‘pioneers’ such as Kenealy. As identified at the outset, simply reifying individuals as inspirational heroines risks oversimplifying and sanitising women’s history. Recently, historian Fern Riddell has highlighted the role violence played in the suffragette movement, discussing how such militancy has been erased in the cultural imagination. Of course, Kenealy in many ways went against this grain, using her platform to decry women’s rights, but she is another figure who proves difficult to accommodate or integrate into our popular narratives of women’s history. To understand fully women’s varied contributions to history, however, we need to engage with a range of attitudes, opinions and behaviours that shaped public and private life.

[1] Angelique Richardson, Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth-Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 9.

[2] Kristine Swenson, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005).

[3] Arabella Kenealy, Dr Janet of Harley Street (New York: Appleton, 1894), p. 124.

[4] Kenealy, Dr Janet, p. 143.

[5] Kenealy, Dr Janet, p. 195.

[6] Hilda Gregg, ‘The Medical Woman in Fiction’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 164 (July 1898), 94-109 (p. 108).

[7] Kenealy, Dr Janet, p. 124.

[8] Patricia Fara, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 40.

[9] ‘Notes on Books’, BMJ, 15 May 1920, p. 676.

[10] Kenealy, ‘Correspondence: A Question of Conscience’, BMJ, 14 September 1895, p. 682.

[11] Anne Hanley, Medicine, Knowledge and Venereal Diseases in England, 1886-1916 (London: Palgrave, 2017), p. 154.

[12] A.G. Welsford, ‘Correspondence: “A Question of Conscience”’, BMJ, 28 September 1895, p. 807.

[13] Kenealy, ‘Correspondence: “A Question of Conscience”’, BMJ, 12 October 1895, p. 934.

[14] ‘Letters, Notes, and Answers to Correspondents: “A Human Vivisection”’, BMJ, 20 June 1896, p. 1544.

[15] ‘Letters, Notes, and Answers to Correspondents: “A Human Vivisection”’, BMJ, 27 June 1896, p. 1588.

Emma Hutchinson (1820-1906)

In browsing many natural history periodicals of the nineteenth century, a casual reader could be forgiven for believing that science was pursued predominantly by men. The overwhelming majority of contributors to these publications were male, and even the few mentions of women involved in collecting are often mediated through their husbands or other male relatives. A Mr J. P. Duncan wrote to the Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer in 1858 to relate that, ‘Mrs Duncan captured, yesterday afternoon, a fine female specimen of what I conceive to be Micra ostrina‘. The identity of the unfortunate Mrs Duncan is elided, and although she is rightfully credited with catching the insect, it is her husband who identifies the species and assumes responsibility for informing the periodical’s readers.

Despite the preponderance of men in these periodicals, women were heavily involved in the practices of natural history, though evidence of their roles can sometimes be harder to come by. Some of us will be familiar with the pioneering figure of Eleanor Ormerod (1808-1901), who earned widespread recognition among the scientific establishment for her work on injurious insects. Far less well-known, however, is Emma Hutchinson (1820-1906), who was an important and highly-valued figure within the entomological community. Born Emma Gill, in 1847 she married the Reverend Thomas Hutchinson, a Herefordshire-based vicar and keen botanist. It was the couple’s eldest son who first turned his mother’s attention to the pursuit of entomology, when he caught a moth at the age of five. Thereafter, Hutchinson took to the study of insects with an enthusiasm and dedication far beyond many of her contemporaries.

Hutchinson became particularly skilled at the breeding of Lepidoptera, a very difficult task that required dexterity and close attention. While chasing butterflies with a net was certainly a common practice, rearing insects from the egg was an equally established way of acquiring specimens. It ensured the insects were in excellent condition, as identification of species could often rest on minute anatomical differences that were at risk of damage by the less gentle manner of catching them on the wing. Furthermore, it allowed for a more exhaustive study of these insects, giving the breeder a chance to observe the full lifecycle of the butterfly or moth as it progressed from caterpillar to the adult (imago) stage.

Among Hutchinson’s greatest claim to fame was her continuous breeding of Eupithecia insigniata – the Pinion-spotted Pug moth – for over thirty years. In volume 8 of William Buckler’s book, Larvae of the British Butterflies and Moths (1899), the author notes that ‘towards the end of May, 1868, Mrs Hutchinson, of Grantsfield, kindly sent me seven eggs of Eupithecia consignata, laid by a female taken in Herefordshire by her daughter. They all hatched in the course of a few days’. Buckler notes that this was an ‘almost unknown larva’, thereby making Hutchinson’s contribution particularly valuable.

Buckler Larvae

William Buckler’s illustrations of larvae, with Hutchinson’s Pinion-spotted Pug centre-left (no. 2).

Despite her obvious skill and expertise, Hutchinson published very little compared to her male counterparts, nor was she permitted to join her local scientific society, the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, which did not admit women as full members until 1954. Consequently, one of her earliest publications in the club’s Transactions is attributed to ‘the family of Rev. Thos. Hutchinson’. Hutchinson’s obituarist in the Entomologist’s Record and Journal of Variation lamented that ‘she has left record of so little of her knowledge’, and ranked her among the foremost entomologists in the country at that time. However, she did contribute various short notices to two periodicals, the Entomologist (1864-1973) and the Young Naturalist (1879-90), recording her entomological activity.

Writing in 1865, Hutchinson recorded a successful collecting trip: ‘I shall be obliged to announce in the Entomologist the capture of Cerestoma asperella at Leominster. I believe this insect has only been taken once before in this country, and then by Mr Dale at Glanvilles Wootton. I have taken but a single specimen, and on the same day a lady in our party netted a specimen of Sarothripa revayana, an insect not previously taken here’. The published letter was signed ‘E. S. Hutchinson’, giving no clue as to her gender. This brief statement is highly suggestive, as it demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of Lepidoptera and an ability to correctly identify these insects, but also a familiarity with entomological literature regarding where and by whom previous captures had been made. Furthermore, the reference to a second woman collecting as part of the group demonstrates that Hutchinson was far from unique in her choice of pastime.

Among Hutchinson’s few publications of greater length was an article in the Young Naturalist. As the periodical’s title implies, the magazine aimed to ‘cultivate a taste for natural history’ among children and adolescents. Hutchinson’s piece was entitled ‘Entomology and Botany as Pursuits for Ladies’, specifically addressing young ladies in an attempt to convince her readers that these two branches of study were ‘strictly feminine’ and worth their time. The conversational style resembles the ‘maternal tradition’ of science writing, as characterised by Bernard Lightman, by which women wrote for an audience of children and other women. Unlike her letters to the Entomologist, the article was signed as ‘Mrs Hutchinson’, thereby emphasising that she was a woman and a mother.

A further significant article penned by Hutchinson for the Entomologist in 1881 regards the supposed near-extinction of the Comma butterfly (Vanessa c-album) in Britain, as had been repoorted by a number of other correspondents to the periodical. She disagreed, reporting that the butterfly remained abundant in her native Herefordshire. Furthermore, Hutchinson relates her attempts at conservation, describing how ‘I have bribed those over whom I have control in the parish to collect for me every larva and pupa they can find, and by this means have preserved many thousands of this lovely butterfly’. A great number of these insects she sent to be released in Surrey, in an effort to repopulate depleted areas, ‘but without success’.

After Hutchinson’s death, her scientifically valuable collection of 20,000 Herefordshire Lepidoptera were donated by her daughter to the London Natural History Museum, a testament to the scope and significance of her collecting. She is remembered in entomological nomenclature by a variant form of the Comma butterfly, which is named hutchinsoni in her honour.


The Comma butterfly, from Richard South’s Butterflies of the British Isles (1906). The variety named after Hutchinson, which is slightly paler than the other forms, is bottom right.