The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 13. A Dose of Poison

This was a callous era, both in everyday life and in science. Weakness inspired scorn, not pity. Blindness, deafness, a clubfoot, or a twisted leg were rebukes from God. Entertainments were often cruel, punishments invariably brutal, scientific experiments sometimes macabre. For decades, for example, dissections had been performed in public for ticket-buying audiences, like plays in a theater. The bodies of executed criminals made ideal subjects for study and display and not simply because they were readily available. Just as important, one historian notes, cutting criminals open in front of an attentive audience demonstrated “the culture’s preference for punishment by means of public humiliation and display.”

That preference was on display year-round. When it comes to punishing wrongdoers, modern society tends to avert its eyes. Not so the 1600s. In London prisoners locked in the pillory provided a bit of street theater, an alternative to a puppet show. Passersby screamed insults or took the opportunity to show their children what happened to bad people. The captive stood upright as best he could, head and hands trapped in holes cut into a horizontal wooden beam. Perhaps his ears had been nailed to the beam. The pillory was built to pivot as the prisoner staggered, in order to give spectators on all sides a chance to throw a dead cat or a rock.

Since punishments were meant to frighten and demean, whippings, brandings, and hangings took place where crowds could gather. Thieves could be hanged for stealing a handkerchief, though that was rare. More often, the theft of a handkerchief or a parcel of bread and cheese brought a whipping. A bolder theft—a gold ring or a silver bracelet—might merit branding with a hot iron, with a T for thief. Usually the Twas seared into the flesh of the hand, although for a brief era that was considered too lenient, and the cheek was used instead. Any substantial theft meant death on the gallows.

Religious dissenters risked terrible punishments, like criminals. For the sin of “horrid blasphemy,” in 1656, the Quaker James Nayler was sentenced to three hundred lashes, the branding of a B on his forehead, and the piercing of his tongue with a red-hot iron. Then Nayler was flung into prison, where he served three years in solitary confinement.

Even the most gruesome tortures served as spectacle and entertainment. (One history of seventeenth-century London includes an outing to watch a hanging in a section titled “Excursions.”) The most dreadful punishment of all was hanging, drawing, and quartering. “A man sentenced to this terrible fate was strung up by the neck, but not so as to kill him,” the historian Liza Picard explains. “Then his innards were taken out as if he were a carcass in a butcher’s shop. This certainly killed him, if he had not died of shock before. The innards were burned, and the eviscerated corpse was chopped into four bits, which with the head were nailed up here and there throughout the City.” (To preserve severed heads so that they could endure years of outdoor exposure, and to keep ravens away, they were parboiled with salt and cumin seeds.)


London Bridge in 1616, with traitors’ heads on spikes above gateway (right foreground). The heads were such an everyday feature of life that the artist did not bother to call attention to them. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

London Bridge, more or less the shopping mall of its day, had been adorned for centuries with traitors’ heads impaled on spikes. In Queen Elizabeth’s day the bridge’s southern gate bristled with some thirty heads.15

A taste for the grisly ran through the whole society, from the lowliest tradesman to the king himself. On May 11, 1663, Pepys made a passing reference to the king in his diary. Surgeons “did dissect two bodies, a man and a woman, before the King,” Pepys wrote matter-of-factly, “with which the King was highly pleased.”

At times the king’s interest in anatomy grew downright creepy. At a court ball in 1663, a woman miscarried. Someone brought the fetus to the king, who dissected it. To modern ears, the lighthearted tone surrounding the whole episode is almost unfathomable. “Whatever others think,” the king joked, “he [i.e., Charles himself ] hath the greatest loss . . . that hath lost a subject by the business.”

When it came to experiments on animals, the seventeenth century was even less squeamish. Newton veered toward vegetarianism—he seldom ate rabbit and some other common dishes on the grounds that “animals should be put to as little pain as possible”—but such qualms were rare. Sages of the Royal Society happily carried out experiments on dogs that are too grim to read about without flinching. They had ample company. Descartes, as deep and introspective a thinker as ever lived, wrote blithely that humans are the only animals who think and feel. The yelp of a kicked dog no more indicated pain than did the sound of a drum when you beat it.


Another widely admired philosopher of the day, Athanasius Kircher, described an odd invention called a cat piano. The goal was to amuse a despondent prince. A row of cats sat in side-by-side cages, arranged according to the pitch of their meows. When the pianist pressed a key, a spike stabbed into the tail of the appropriate cat. “The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy.”

In London shouting, jostling crowds flocked to bear-baitings and bull-baitings, where they could watch a chained animal fight a pack of slavering dogs. (Thus the origin of the English bulldog, whose flat face and sunken nose let it keep its hold on a flailing bull without having to open its powerful jaws to breathe.) Even children’s games routinely featured the torment of animals. “No wonder,” the historian Keith Thomas writes, “that traditional nursery rhymes portray blind mice having their tails cut off with a carving knife, blackbirds in a pie, and pussy in the well.”

Experiments on dogs were considered entertaining as well as informative. Wren, for instance, made a specialty of splenectomies, surgical operations to remove the spleen. With a dog tied in place on a table, Wren would carefully cut into its abdomen, extract the spleen, tie off the blood vessels, sew up the wound, and then place the poor beast in a corner to recover, or not. (Boyle subjected his pet setter to the procedure and noted that the dog survived “as sportive and wanton as before.”)

The operations provide yet another instance of how new science and ancient belief found themselves yoked together. For fourteen centuries, the Western world had endorsed Galen’s doctrine that health depended on a balance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—each secreted by a different organ.16 Too little or too much phlegm, say, made a person phlegmatic, dreary and sluggish and flat. Just as the heart was the source of blood, so the spleen was the source of black bile (which, in the wrong proportion, caused melancholy). All medical authorities had so decreed for more than a thousand years. Hence Wren’s experiment, a new test of an age-old dogma—if health depended on having all four humors in the proper balance, what would it mean if a dog could get along perfectly well with no bile-producing spleen at all?

Countless dogs suffered through transfusions, too. Many of them survived, somehow, even though no one knew about the dangers of infection or mismatched blood types. Boyle wrote a paper calling for answers to such questions “As whether a fierce Dog, by being often quite new stocked with the blood of a cowardly Dog, may not become more tame,” or “whether a Dog, taught to fetch and carry, or to dive after Ducks, or to sett, will after frequent and full recruits of the blood of Dogs unfit for those Exercises, be as good at them, as before?”

Sometimes the experiments had more serious rationales. How, for instance, did venom from a snakebite spread throughout the body? What about a person who swallowed poison? What would happen if someone injected him with poison instead? Tempting as it might have been to test such ideas on human “volunteers,” dogs came first. (Boyle did report a conversation with “a foreign Ambassador, a very curious person,” who had set out to inject one of his servants with poison. The servant spoiled the fun by fainting before the experiment could begin.)

But many of the experiments were essentially stunts. At dinner one November night in 1666, Pepys listened to an excited report of the events a few days before at the Royal Society. Dr. William Croone gave a vivid account of a blood transfusion between a mastiff and a spaniel. “The first died upon the place,” Pepys reported, “and the other very well, and likely to do well.”

Croone had been impressed by the “pretty experiment” and even suggested to Pepys that someday transfusions might prove useful “for the amending of bad blood by borrowing from a better body.” But no one at the Royal Society had dwelt much on the medical significance of the day’s entertainment. The mood had been carefree, the company devoting most of its attention to a kind of parlor game. Which natural enemies would make the most amusing partners for a blood exchange? “This did give occasion to many pretty wishes,” Pepys wrote cheerily, “as of the blood of a Quaker to be let into an Archbishop, and such like.”