The twenty-third of August, 2011: an inverted engineer, and you and everybody you know

I picked up a splendid book at The Leeds Library‘s bargain-crammed booksale. It’s The Body by the science journalist (and part-time balloonist) Anthony Smith (Pelican, 1970), a gripping guide to the human form, inside and out. It’s entirely filled with interesting facts of the sort I’d like to foist on strangers at dinner-parties, if I ever went to dinner-parties. Did you know, for instance, that the typical fart comprises 59% nitrogen, 21% hydrogen, 9% carbon dioxide, 7% methane and 4% oxygen, sometimes with a flavoursome dash of hydrogen sulphide thrown in?

And it only cost me 25p.

Here’s a diverting historical anecdote from the chapter on ‘Respiration and Blood’. It concerns stogie-chomping engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel:

He swallowed a half-sovereign in 1833 [the year he began work on the Great Western Railway] and, which was far worse, it chose to go the way of his lungs rather than his stomach.

For two days he suffered, and was then summarily strapped on to a plank. This was raised nearly to the vertical, with Brunel’s head at the lower end; his back was then hit. This rough approach failed entirely. It caused much more choking to arise, but no half-sovereign.

Further treatment in the same sledgehammer manner three and a half weeks later did in fact budge the coin from his right bronchus, but not far enough. His trachea was then cut open, but unavailingly.

Two more weeks passed, and he again submitted to the upside-down shock treatment – it sounds entirely his own devising – and the coin dropped from his mouth.

Richer then by ten shillings and an unpleasant six-week experience Brunel was a lot luckier than some who never lose the impediment in their lungs.

The Body was made into a documentary film by Kestrel Films in 1971; there are a couple of clips – uploaded by fans of Floydist and soundtrack composer Roger Watershere and here.


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