Gulp! That’s Hard to Swallow

Plenty of people have swallowed coins. But how many have tossed a beaded crucifix or a spoon down the hatch? Or for that matter how many have ingested safety pins, porcelain dolls, or a 4-foot long window chain? All that and much more shows up in English Professor Mary Cappello’s latest book, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them.

Cappello came across the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection during a trip to the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia more than four years ago.

Jackson, a laryngologist who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a near-perfect success rate of extracting foreign objects without causing injury or death to thousands of patients. And he did it without using anesthesia.

“Jackson had a way of being able to calm patients down, especially children,” Cappello said. “He used rigid, brass instruments and proved that the human body is more capacious than we tend to think.”

Her goal was not to offer a definitive piece on the life and career of Jackson, but to peel away some of the layers behind the stories of the objects themselves. She succeeds by approaching the subject with splendid imagery and lyricism.

She researched many of Jackson’s cases through archives held at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., and found more than 40 boxes filled with detailed accounts of Jackson’s patients, such as the 9-month-old boy who survived despite having been forced to swallow safety pins, buttons, cigarette butts and more.

“Reading the background on many of the cases proved to be shockingly illuminating,” Cappello said. “Jackson often reduced the presence of foreign bodies to carelessness, and he didn’t really take into account the complexity of human psychology. There was accidental ingestion, purposeful ingestion, forced ingestion and in some cases phantom ingestion, where people were imagining and even showing symptoms that they had swallowed something that wasn’t there.”