Health Advice



Who was the man with the uneven gait? Mystery medical photos come to life with discovery of long-lost Penn archives

Tom Avril, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

The 20 volumes came from the outpatient clinic of which Dercum was chief: the Dispensary for Nervous Diseases at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The entries span a period of 12 years, starting in 1878, just three years after the hospital was founded.

As Noble began to pore over the fading pages, Penn archivist J.M. Duffin told him the university had copies of Muybridge's photos from the same era. Perhaps some of the subjects were described in the notebooks?

Sure enough, Noble was able to find records for all nine, which he described in September's issue of the journal Neurology.

"You feel like the patient is coming out of the page at you, 150 years later," he said.

Rogers, he learned, was H.V. Rogers: an Iowa-born clerk who came to the clinic on 20 occasions over the course of six years. He gave his address as 18 N. Fifth St., in what is now part of the lawn at Independence Mall.

At his first visit, in October 1883, at age 32, Rogers reported suffering from headaches, indigestion, and constipation. Physicians diagnosed him with "general nervousness," attributing it to overwork.


On another visit in 1885, he complained of a constricted abdomen and pain in his calves, and was found to have an "ataxic" (unbalanced) gait, which Dercum attributed to a lingering syphilis infection from a decade earlier. At that appointment, Rogers agreed to walk in front of Muybridge's battery of 12 cameras, each one triggered by an electrical mechanism of the photographer's design.

From the side, the images show him lifting his feet higher than normal and landing with a slight "slap," Noble said. A second set of images, shot from behind, reveals that Rogers swayed with each step and had a wide stance.

Noble said it was impossible to confirm the diagnosis of syphilis, but he agreed that the patient's movements were consistent with such an infection — which, in an era with no antibiotics, could spread to the spinal cord and brain.

Among the other patients that Noble matched to the photos were a 24-year-old laborer who had fallen into a pit, landing on his head; a 41-year-old homemaker who walked stiffly and experienced jerking movements of the head and torso, attributed to inflammation of the spinal cord; and a 26-year-old "domestic" with a spastic gait, cramps, and numbness, blamed on "hysteria."


swipe to next page
©2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.