Saturday, January 16, 2010


People swallow some strange things - and not always accidentally. But this post is not about regurgitators and sword swallowers...

Pica is a medical disorder characterized by an appetite for things other than food, and manifests itself most often in pregnant women, small children (old enough to know better), and the developmentally disabled. A Frenchman swallowed $650 worth of coins. An Ethiopian man swallowed 222 metallic objects. A woman in the Netherlands was found to have ingested 78 items of cutlery: "I don't know why but I felt an urge to eat the silverware - I could not help myself," she said. There are associated dangers with ingesting objects. Children are in danger of eating lead paint, for instance, and adults with a taste for dirt risk swallowing parasites or chemical toxins. Pica may be caused by mineral deficiency, stress, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Trichophagia, the eating of hair, is an example of pica and can result in a bezoar like the 10-pounder that surgeons removed from the stomach of a Chicago woman in 2007 and this one that accumulated in the stomach of a 25-year-old woman with autism.

Of course, there are accidental ingestions, some more spectacular than others. These scissors were inadvertently left in a patient's stomach during surgery, but these were swallowed accidentally by a man using them to clean his teeth. And you've heard urban legends of people swallowing their dentures, but how about this story of a woman swallowing her partner's dentures during sex. A bulimic woman accidentally swallowed the spoon she was using to purge. And a 7-year-old boy accidentally swallowed the hip-hop grill, a metal mouthpiece, that he was wearing. There are special dangers associated with swallowing magnets, beyond the strange story of a magnetic toy that reassembled itself in a boy's stomach after he ate the parts.

Whether swallowed accidentally or due to pica, the objects are sometimes collected and make astonishing exhibits. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia lays claim to the Chevalier Jackson Collection of over 2,000 ingested items organized in narrow lie-flat drawers labelled "Bones," "Coins," "Nuts, seeds, shells or other vegetal substances," and "Dental material, along with the instruments Dr. Jackson (1865-1958) - a laryngologist - designed and used to extract foreign objects without resorting to surgery. A case on the wall at Children's Hospital Boston includes 120 objects aspirated or ingested between 1918 and 1962. And in my Dad's hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, the Glore Psychiatric Museum offers a display case (pictured) that contains 1,440 items found in the stomach of a patient suffering from pica.

If you still haven't had enough, there are plenty of lists and slideshows to be found, but I - for one - am fully satiated - and it's time for lunch...


  1. Hi Christine,

    Wonderful to find your post on this endlessly fascinating subject! I've just finished writing a book about the Mutter Musuem's Chevalier Jackson Collection of swallowed and aspirated "things." It will appear from The New Press, and it delves into many of the areas that you bring to the fore here, including PICA. Jackson was an amazing figure, an eccentric genius, really, and I'm trying to bring his unusual legacy back to light, plumbing the depths of his autobiography (a bestseller in 1938), but I'm also interested in bringing some of the life stories that haunt the collection back into communion with the objects therein. For that, I turned to the National Library of Medicine where a number of the actual case studies reside. The book titled, SWALLOW, is set to appear in Fall 2010. I look forward to being in conversation with you and will be curious to know what you think of how I worked with these materials.

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