One of the more extreme pieces of television from last year came in the form of the BBC documentary Bodysnatchers.
One of the more extreme pieces of television from last year came in the form of the BBC documentary Bodysnatchers, which included footage of Salford biologist Mike Leahy swallowing a beef tapeworm cyst and encouraging the creature to mature in his gut. It happily obliged to the extent of four centimetres worth of growth a week, until it met its nemesis in the form of anti-worm medication (which was fair enough as the poor guy was getting married shortly thereafter, and while a tapeworm might not constitute ’just cause’ it’s certainly an ’impediment’). A relieved Leahy was happy to pose in his garden, lying next to three metres of segmented nastiness. Gross though it was, Leahy’s obvious passion must have had a positive effect in this area, simultaneously horrifying and intriguing prospective students who had thought biology might just be for them. Which begs the question - can the same effect be achieved for chemistry?
What we really need to do is find a precedent for acts of chemical insanity which could then be adapted; and the further back you go, the easier they are to find. For example, step forward William Yarworth, alchemist of the late 17th and early 18th century. Yarworth was an acquaintance of Sir Isaac Newton, himself no stranger to alchemy, and alongside some of Yarworth’s arcane manuscripts, his collected papers include a letter from the alchemist to the great man. In this, Yarworth basically seems to be on the scrounge, complaining that if the recently introduced window-tax and Queens tax were not bad enough, his landlady was on the warpath. He asks for his ’wanted Alowance [sic]’ and proceeds on to some heavy duty toadying, which the florid language of the day only serves to emphasise. So far so good, but what about chemical insanity? Well one of the Yarworth manuscripts which Newton will have studied was Chymicus Rationalis, or, The fundamental grounds of the chymical art. Within this text we find descriptions of the properties of Astrum Lunare Microcosmicum, better known as white phosphorus. The element had been known for nearly a quarter of a century when Yarworth penned this treatise, and here he reports on the best methods of preparation (starting with ’Urine well putrefied’). He notes that it is best stored under water, observes that it can set paper alight and finds that steeping it in spirits, followed by pouring of the latter into water, results in ’Flashes like Lightening’. To finish with, and bereft of modern analytical techniques, Yarworth had to come up with some observational masterstroke, something from the cutting edge of 17th century chemical reasoning that would provide subtle insight into the true nature of the element and cement his reputation for posterity. His choice? He rubbed it into his genitals. Genius!
’If the Privy Parts be therewith rubb’d, they will be inflamed and burning for a good while after,’ wrote Yarworth. I bet they would! It’s hard to know if this had any lasting effect on William, although perhaps the fact that thereafter he started writing under the pseudonym Cleidophorus Mystagogus indicates that the experience may have unhinged him somewhat. Anyhow, that might be a good choice for a televisual demonstration (albeit past the watershed) - certainly, as with Leahy’s, few who witnessed it would ever forget it! As an encore, the presenter could perhaps eat some realgar. An early Chinese recipe for ’nibbling’ this form of arsenic sulfide says that benefits include the banishment of all illnesses, grey hair turns black and lost teeth regenerate. Subsequently, things get really interesting as ’. fairies will come to serve you and you can use them to summon the Travelling Canteen’. Now that’s what I call television; tapeworms - who needs them! Get some hapless presenter to slap white phosphorus on his privates while munching arsenic sulfide and marvel as his hair darkens and servile fairies pop out of the aether. They can even use the contents of the Travelling Canteen to help put out the ensuing flames. I think we’re on a winner here.