Friday, August 12, 2011


For those of you who still enjoy reading printed ephemera, I Love Bad Movies Volume 4 presents a variety of articles discussing films from or about childhood, adolescence, and those awkward teenage years. With seventy pages of essays and a special feature interview with the director of The Children (1980), this zine makes a great read for adults fascinated or scarred by children's movies such as Troll 2, Mac and Me, and/or The Apple Dumpling Gang.

Go to page 56 and you will find my article, Hot Dogs and Parasites: Advertising Conspiracies Revealed By The Faculty. Yes, it's a long title, but I've been in grad school. What can I do? I describe the link between hotdogs, alien parasitism, and diuretics in Robert Rodriguez's movie, The Faculty. The essay was inspired by my friend Todd Alcott, who worked on the feature and made a short film about pathology and hotdogs.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Not quite Mary Poppins...

The luck o' the chimney sweeps must have rubbed off on me last night. It was the perfect evening! First I posted part one of my blog about Mary Poppins, chimney sweeps, and scrotal cancer in the 18th and 19th century, then I found a charming movie full of infantile humor about two criminals who's activities contributed to the creations of England's Anatomy Act of 1832.

I ask you, what is funnier that a corpse with his crotch in the air?
(Image from here.)

Which movie was this? John Landis' Burke and Hare! What fun(1)! Of course, in real life, the Williams Burke and Hare murdered 16 people(2) to sell to an Edinburgh anatomy school for dissection. If you think teachers have a hard time getting classroom supplies these days, try being an anatomist in the 19th century. There were not enough bodies of executed criminals to go around, and market demand was high.

An example of the shoddy quality of cadavers available
from grave robbers. Ick!

In the movie, Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are bizarrely sympathetic. Although there are some fantastic liberties taken to develop a dynamic plot, occasionally replacing historical accuracy. The film has a number of fine moments that communicate the culture of medical education at the time.

Tim Curry (love him!) is also in the film.
There seems to be a running gag about his character and feet.
Could it be a reference to Daft Jamie, one of B and H's victims?

An excellent read on the history of medicine, death, poverty, and criminality in pre-20th century England is Ruth Richardson's Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Chapter 16 focuses on our heroes Burke and Hare, but if you read all 450-odd pages, you will have an appreciation for the culture from which Burke and Hare arose as they took the profession of the Resurrectionist to its next logical incarnation. An added perk is that the movie contains a lot of visual references that can be appreciated more fully if you do a little homework.

1. It's humorous only if you think it's funny when people have the contents of chamber pots thrown on their heads, or when a barrel containing a corpse gets away from our heroes and rolls through the city streets, or if you can see the lighter side of smothering someone to death.
2. Two old men, two handicapped youths, and 12 women, according to Ruth Richardson.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


(Sorry Gang! I lost the formatting war with this post...)

Dick Van Dyke as Bert

The other day I found myself thinking about Bert (Dick Van Dyke), the happy-go lucky, charismatic chimney sweep from the film Mary Poppins.

Bert considers himself rather lucky. As an early 20th century working man, immersed in the products of combustion (namely soot) with (supposedly) better hygienic practices than his 18th and 19th century chimney sweep counterparts, he probably is luckier than his professional forefathers were.

Doctor Pott, I presume.

In 1775 Percival Pott described the first malignant disease connected with a specific occupation. What, you ask, was this occupation? Chimney sweeping. And what was the occupational disease associated with it? Why, scrotal cancer!

Being a chimney sweep in 18th century London was a living hell, particularly for young boys drafted into profession. These boys were forced to crawl up the chimneys in order to clean them out. According to a fabulous article, A Brief History Of Scrotal Cancer, 17th and 18th century chimneys were narrow and crooked. You couldn’t get the cleaning equipment through the steeply angled 9x14” spaces. So what to do? Send a boy up there, of course… naked!

According to the article, many boys would get stuck in the chimney and suffocate from inhaling too much soot. Then they’d have to call a brick mason, to get the dead body of the child out. Sometimes these boys were sent into the chimney to put out fires!

If a boy survived his chimney adventures, eventually he’d grow to be too big to go up the chimney himself. In 1842 an Act was passed to keep boys out of chimneys, although the custom continued for another twenty years. Bert’s grandfather may have been one of the boys sent up the chimney.

What does a naked boy crawling in a chimney have to do with scrotal cancer? These kids were exposed everywhere to soot, smoke, and carcinogenic products of combustion.

Run away little Michael... run!


Carcinogens cause cancer by mutating cells or altering their metabolisms. There are all sorts of carcinogens - tobacco, some forms of salted fish, some hepatitis viruses, alcoholic drinks, cell phone radiation, coal and wood smoke, soot, etc. Sometimes it seems like everything is carcinogenic.

The soot-covered Bert shakes hands with the tobacco smoker.

Good luck will rub off! (Or be inhaled!)

Although cancer is a common event, it can be somewhat unpredictable. A person might be exposed to a carcinogen, their cells altered, and the cancer won’t show up until years later. Additionally, not everyone exposed to the carcinogen is guaranteed to develop cancer. Some people might be genetically predisposed to developing it, or a person might need to be exposed to the agent in a specific way. Other people might not develop tumors after the same type of exposure as someone who develops cancer.

Which of these men will develop lung or scrotal cancer?

Next time... the name the chimney sweeps gave this form of cancer, plus a description of 18th century treatment for this disease!