The Woman Who Vomited Frogs

by Dr. Cliff Pickover

In 1642, Mrs. Catharina Geisslerin was widely known as "the toad-vomiting woman of Germany." She told people that she had swallowed tadpoles in swamp water, and that frogs were thriving in her intestinal tract. Whenever she drank milk, the frogs would hop about madly. Despite initial skepticism, she convinced physicians that amphibians were in her digestive system -- especially after she vomited fully-grown frogs (sometimes living) for two years in front of famous professors and medical consultants!

When Dr. Thomas Rheinesius, a great physician from Saxony, decided to study Catharina's case, she seemed to stop vomiting frogs. He wanted to examine her further, and for three months gave her various foul solutions to encourage her to vomit and have diarrhea. But no frogs came forth. Next, Professor Michaelis from Leipzig came to give Catharina more powerful agents to encourage vomiting -- which caused her to vomit a frog leg.

In 1648, after the physicians had left, Catharina began vomiting amphibians with a passion -- and the famous Thomas Bartholin was called in to study her. Bartholin, a student of the Dutch school of anatomists, was no slouch. He taught at the University of Copenhagen (1646-1661) and served as physician to King Christian V (reference 1). As mentioned previously, Bartholin was the first person to fully describe the entire human lymphatic system. If anyone could solve the mystery of the frog-vomiting woman, he could, or so people thought.

Bartholin started his research by cutting up one of Catharina's frog children. He was shocked to find dozens of black flies inside the stomach. How could this be if the frog had grown to maturity within the woman's belly? Like St. André who did not consider mature rabbit dung and floating lungs indicative of fraud, Bartholin did not think the flies meant Catharina swallowed frogs and vomited them in front of spectators a few minutes later.

When Catharina died in 1662, the medical community was excited about dissecting her body to search for amphibians within her stomach or intestines. To their dismay, the physicians found no creatures. Catharina did not die by amphibian overcrowding but by liver inflammation.

The scientists studying Catharina did not realize that the stomach's digestive juices would quickly destroy amphibians. (The warm temperature also contributes to their demise.)

Theodorus Döderlein vomits frogs and newts.
(From Georg Abraham Mercklin's De Incantamentis, 1715.)
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, there were many stories of people vomiting amphibians, and most German pathological museums contained vomited amphibians that allegedly lived for years in a person's digestive tract. For example, in 1694, Theodorus Döderlein of southern Germany vomited 21 newts and 4 frogs (see Figure). In 1834, Mrs. Henriette Pfenning vomited frogs in front of applauding crowds of spectators. (She later admitted her hoax -- she stashed the frogs inside her skirt pockets and pretended to vomit the frogs.)

Why did these individuals swallow creatures only to vomit (or pretend to vomit) them in front of crowds? (reference 2) No doubt much of it was for attention, although it is possible that obsessive compulsive disorder played a role in some cases. People afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder perform endless odd rituals that dominate their daily lives. For example, trichotillomaniacs continuously pull out their hair. Other people with obsessive-compulsive disorder continually wash their hands, check if a door is locked, perform rituals while going through doorways, etc. Almost all people afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder recognize their problems and therefore often keep their embarrassing diseases hidden.

The most extreme case of compulsive swallowing is that of a 42-year-old woman who, in 1927, complained of a "slight abdominal pain." Physicians removed 2,533 objects from her stomach including 947 bent pins. In 1985, physicians removed 212 objects from a man whose stomach contents included: 53 toothbrushes, 2 razors, 2 telescopic aerials, and 150 handles of disposable razors. (reference 3)

On the flip side of the coin are those individuals who insert objects into their rectums. Modern medical journals list an astonishing array of objects: a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's syrup, an ax handle, a 9-inch zucchini, a plastic spatula, a Coke bottle, an 11-inch carrot, an antenna rod, a 150-watt light bulb, 72 jeweler's saws, an apple, a frozen pig's tail, an 18-inch umbrella handle, two Vaseline jars, a teacup, an oilcan, a 6x5-inch tool box, a two-pound stone, a baby powder can, a peanut butter jar, a ball-point pen, baseballs, a sand-filled bicycle inner tube, sewing needles, a flashlight, a tobacco pouch, a turnip, a pair of eyeglasses, a hard- boiled egg, a carborundum grindstone, a suitcase key, tumblers and glasses, and a polyethylene waste trap from the U-bend of a sink. In 1955, one depressed man inserted a six-inch paper tube into his rectum, dropped in a lighted firecracker, and blew a hole in his anterior rectal wall. For a more comprehensive list of objects people have voluntarily placed inside themselves, see Cecil Adams's More of The Straight Dope. (reference 4)

Some strange food cravings are so common today that they have scientific names of their own, for example: (reference 5)
 pagophagia - ice-eating
 xylophagia - wooden toothpick eating
 coniophagia - a lust for dust
 geophagia - clay or dirt eating
 amylophagia - the consumption of laundry starch and paste
 coprophagia - feces eating

Experimental evidence shows that pica, the intentional and compulsive consumption of non-food substances, can be a sign of iron or other nutrient deficiency, or mental illness. Pica can drive children and adults to exhibit pagophagia, geophagia, and amylophagia, and also the consumption of ash, chalk, antacids, paint chips, plaster, wax, and paint. Pica occurs worldwide and is common among people of either sex and of all ages and races. One sufferer admitted to consuming ice cubes from five ice trays every day, supplemented by bags of crushed ice obtained at convenience stores. Another sufferer followed her husband to collect his cigarette ashes so she could eat them. A significant number of clay-eaters have shown up in emergency rooms with obstructed or even perforated intestines. Many pica sufferers can be cured if they are given iron supplements.

Coprophagia, or eating one's own feces, has been reported in many animals, where it can be either a normal or pathological behavior. Coprophagia in humans is uncommon, and more likely to occur in patients with old age dementia, depression, hypothyroidism, learning disability, and severe psychosis such as associated with schizophrenia in young adults. Coprophagia has been described in many animals including lemur, marmoset, horse, guinea-pig, chinchilla, beaver and shrew. The growth of rats is stunted by 20% when coprophagia is prevented. Coprophagia, a normal behavior in rabbits and rodents, appears to aid bacterial synthesis of nutrients, particularly B group vitamins and vitamin K in the colon.

Feces ingestion is also a feature of a culture-bound syndrome, called Piblokto, in Eskimos (Inuits). In the mentally handicapped, nutritional supplements have reduced the frequency of coprophagia.

Cliff is the author of 30 books including the The Lobotomy Club, which is part of the Neoreality science-fiction series in which people explore parallel realities.

"The Woman Who Vomited Frogs" copyright Cliff Pickover.


1. King Christian V (1646 - 1699) was the Scandinavian king who consolidated "absolutism" in Denmark-Norway. Popular with the common people, he fortified the absolutist system against the aristocracy by accelerating his father's practice of allowing Holstein nobles and Danish commoners into state service. To accommodate them, Christian V created the new noble ranks of count and baron.

2. In my novel Egg Drop Soup I discuss a race of beautiful, translucent, women (called Reobatrachus) with strange sexual practices. After the male has fertilized the female's eggs with his sperm, the female swallows the eggs and broods them in her stomach. The nurturing female stops feeding during the breeding period so that the stomach acid does not destroy the eggs. To be more precise, the egg capsules secrete a prostoglandin that stops the mom's stomach from secreting hydrochloric acid. The stomach is transformed from a digestive organ into a protective gestational sac! When it is time for the babies to be born, the mother's esophagus dilates and the young creatures are shot from her mouth. Although readers of Egg Drop Soup found this idea hard to swallow, I had to remind them that the idea of a stomach serving as both a digestive and reproductive organ was inspired by the reproductive strategies of certain frogs on Earth that use their stomachs as reproductive organs. See for example: W. Duellman, "Reproductive strategies of frogs," Scientific American. (July 1992): 80-87.

3. The Guiness Book of World Records, 1991, p. 38.

4. Cecil Adams, More of the Straight Dope (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).

5. Cecil Adams, More of the Straight Dope (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 91.

If you want to read additional stories involving medical mysteries, see my popular book The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: A True Medical Mystery.

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