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

Women often were saddled with that vague, unhelpful diagnosis in the Victorian era, and it's hard to say the true source of the young woman's complaints. But for one of the other patients, a 64-year-old schoolteacher then diagnosed with Parkinsonism, Noble thinks he can set the record straight. From looking at the man's signature and his family history in the notebooks, Noble says that, instead, it is more likely he had a condition called essential tremor.

Many of the treatments prescribed for the patients are now known to be ineffective. In the case of Rogers, physicians administered two that are toxic: strychnine and mercury.

"We see over time that he's getting worse," Noble said. "They're trying to treat him, and it's not working."

Over the years, Rogers also began to experience problems with his eyes. The Penn physicians found that his right optic nerve had atrophied, the retina was irritated, and the right pupil did not contract as much as the left.

After that, the trail goes cold. But a man with the same name, age, and Iowa birthplace can be found in U.S. Census records, living until age 71. That was a fairly advanced age for the time, especially for someone with syphilis, but it is likely the same H.V. Rogers, he said.

"The age of death is a little surprising," Noble said. "But these indolent, chronic infections can burn out over time. I think this is entirely within the realm of possibility."


Muybridge, the photographer, remained best known for his images of horses. He enlisted an artist to copy them onto a glass disk, which he then projected onto a screen with a device he called the zoopraxiscope. When viewed in rapid succession, the images showed the horse in motion — an early forerunner of a movie.

The medical patients, on the other hand, were mostly an enigma, though historians tried over the years to glean clues from studies that Dercum published at the time.

The patient notebooks were rediscovered at the hospital in 2017 and transferred to university archives, where Duffin's colleague, J.J. Ahern, ensured their safe storage for posterity. The archivists, aware that medical records from the era were a rare find, were intrigued.

"I knew they were a goldmine," Duffin said.

What they needed was Noble, someone with medical training and a keen appreciation for the past, to extract the nuggets of history from within.

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