Extreme Constipation and Other Cautionary Tales for Foodies from the World of Medicine


Extreme eating has become one of the leitmotifs of our age. One manifestation is marathon events such as the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, whereby contestants knock back dozens of franks in a single sitting. Other extreme eaters seek out super-spicy food, high-cholesterol organ meats, or even insects in order to push the eating envelope. But can these extreme eating habits have unexpected medical consequences?

A chest contains over 200 examples of things people have choked on, and 80% of them are bone fragments from food. Click on the image to enlarge.

Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, a Victorian-era “cabinet of medical curiosities,” offers several cautionary tales for extreme eaters, and even some for normal eaters.

A chest of drawers contains objects diners have choked on. Some had to be surgically removed, and a fraction of the patients died. Apparently, 80% of the objects are bone fragments that diners inadvertently swallowed. Many of the patients were trying to eat while walking and not paying much attention to what they were eating.

Next: A mummified and enlarged intestine–not for the squeamish!

The mummified intestine of a young man who died of constipation in 1892.

A glass display case shows the mummified large bowel of a 29-year-old man who, quite literally, died of constipation. His bloated intestine was 8 feet, 4 inches long, and 30 inches in circumference at its largest point. His bowels hadn’t moved in an entire month when he was found dead in a “water closet,” as the archaic caption has it. Something to worry about after eating massive numbers of hot dogs, or grazing that all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

Leukoplakia caused by chronic irritation of the tongue.

Other displays show infected tongues caused by cutting one’s glottis while eating, and other conditions with late onset that were exacerbated by diet. As your mother might have told you, “Eat more slowly, and watch what you eat.”

Visitors to the Mutter Museum include thrill seekers as well as serious students of anatomy and disease pathology.

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