Translated August 2015. I'm not a native French speaker or a scholar of the language, so please forgive any errors you may find. Most links are to Wikipedia to provide additional context for any interested readers. -qqwref

Journal of Medicine, Surgery, Pharmacology, etc.

Brumaire year 13 [roughly November 1804]

Report on Polyphagia

by Professor Percy.

We all know the story, or rather the fable, of Erysichthon, the insatiable glutton quo, according to Ovid, devoured, in one meal, enough to feed a whole town, or even a whole nation:

............................ quod urbibus esse,
Quodque satis poterat populo ..........
This allusion, renewed under another name by our Rabelais, has almost ceased to be just a story; and there are many known examples of an equally monstrous hunger 1.

Vopiscus tells us that one day Emperor Aurelius amused himself by watching a man eat a cooked boar, sheep, and piglet, and a proportional amount of bread and wine, that he had been served: he finished it in one day.

In 1511, Emperor Maximilian was presented a man who ate a raw calf in his presence, and he would have also eaten a sheep if they had let him. This habit, as told by Surius, and by several contemporaries, had been witnessed by the whole village of Augsburg.

Helwig saw an old man in good health, who usually consumed for his dinner almost 80 pounds (40 kilograms) of food of all sorts, vegetables, meat, and fish. Jean Schenck, Marcel Donat, Daniel Sennert, and Jean Berovic cite equally remarkable and credible feats.

Realdo Colombo speaks of an omnivore who could, in his time, for want of ordinary foodstuffs, eat his fill of anything else, and who one day, while in the pharmacy of the apothecary Martin at Padua, swallowed a load of coal and then the sack which had contained it.

Such an awful hunger having prompted the gullible demonographer Fromann to say there was fascination and obsession on behalf of those who had been seized by it, several authors thought it necessary to call it criminal and expiatory, whereas the others more reasonably called it furious hunger, famem rabidam [ravenous hunger].

There died in Montpellier, in 1638, a certain Firmin Chaudon, whose incredible destructive force had caused astonishment among the inhabitants of this town for a long time. Laurent Joubert, Cabrol and Caseneuve, who made an overture of peace, swore that they found in him a conformation similar to that of the most voracious animals.

In these last years, at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris has seen a boy in the zoo throw himself ravenously on the most disgusting items, in order to appease a hunger which tormented him ceaselessly, and even on the body of a sick dead lion, which partly disappeared under his heartbreaking tooth.

A soldier who appeared long ago ate as much raw meat as they provided him, and in the butchers' drank entire buckets of blood with delight.

I say nothing of the canine hunger which, according to a report of Brassavola, reigned epidemically at Ferrara in 1538, Di meliora piis [may the gods send better fortune to the pious]; nor of the extraordinary appetite which manifested itself in some corners of Europe, in several epochs, according to the historians of the times. I will not speak either of the minstrels who swallowed segments of sabres, in front of Henry III and the prince of Rohan, as was recounted in Montuus and Paré; nor of the lithovores who, in ancient Rome, entertaining the bored people, stuffed themselves with stones in front of their eyes, so they could resonate by percussion; nor of the wretch who, in the rocky cave of Vivarais, nourished himself on the still-trembling flesh of the unhappy victims of his lechery; nor of the convict at Brest, in whose entrails were found, after his death, more than 600 pieces of wood, tin, or iron; nor of the singular event which occurred a long time ago in Tichstet, of a peasant whose stomach offered up to an astonished Laugius four knives and innumerable fragments of all sorts of materials; nor of the Spaniard with the enormous gullet who, in the times of Vesalius, swallowed a necklace full of gems and bulky ornaments; nor, at last, of the Bohemian knife-eater who owes his life to the boldness and skill of the surgeon Mathis, who, as we know, opened up his stomach. I will write an observation of a polyphage that I knew, in whom one found combined all types of taste, all degrees of gluttony, and who, keen for blood, for meat and the raw flesh of animals, would if necessary put up with any other food that he could make himself swallow.

Tarare was the name, or perhaps the sobriquet, of this incomparable eater, who may have taken it from his birthplace not far from Lyon [that is, Tarare], or received it from an opera which was very much in vogue in Paris when he arrived in 1788. Having left his family very young, a runaway from his father's house, sometimes a thief, other times a beggar, he joined one of those fairground spectacles containing rude farces such as the ones of which Gilles gives samples. Tarare also wanted to do these tricks, and nature had given him a satchel for that purpose.

One day, he challenged the public to satisfy his stomach, and, in minutes, he ate a basket of apples, once someone had agreed to cover the cost; another day, not meeting any generous dupes, he swallowed stones, some corks, and everything the crowd presented him. More than once he was obliged to go find solace at the Hôtel-Dieu from the terrible stomach aches that were occasionally caused by these extravagant games, which he restarted just as before as soon as he felt better; witness the watch of Mr. Giraud, the room surgeon at the time, which Tarare would swallow along with its chain and charms, if one did not hurry to snatch it from his hands.

Desault, seeing him return often to the hospice for the same reason, wanted to use fear to repel him from his perilous trade; he announced that, this time, he could only save Tarare by opening his belly; and he ordered Mr. Courville, one of his aides, to get the tools ready on the operating table. Tarare, terrified, escaped although he was suffering, having drank lukewarm oil, and, forgetting his pain and the danger he had run, he soon returned to his stage. He continued to amuse the multitude with his disgusting pranks until the end of 1789, when, changing his role, and mingling with the wild crowd, he managed to feed himself well, without turning to fraud. He was the only 17, and although he weighed only a hundred pounds (50 kilograms), I heard him say that he was already capable at that age of eating a quarter of beef of the same weight within 24 hours.

At the start of the war, he entered a battalion. As most of the young men in his company had a means of living outside the barracks, he took on their duties, and ate their rations; but this advantage did not last long, and Tarare, cut down by an extreme shortage of food, became sick, and went to the traveling hospital in Soultz between Wissenbourg and Haguenau. Mr. Courville, today head surgeon of the 9th regiment of hussars, was section head of this establishment. Having recognized in this volunteer the deserter from the Hôtel-Dieu, the man with indigestion from stones, he kept Tarare out of curiosity, as well as to study his propensities, of which the origin, as well as the nature, was to be so extraordinary. From the day of his entry, Tarare received a quadruple portion of food, which they prepared for him from the kitchen leftovers and the food refused by the other patients; but that was not enough to satisfy him, and, as soon as he could slip into the pharmacy or the appliance room, he would eat poultices, and anything else that came to hand.

I will not give here the disgusting account of the other means this dirty polyphage made to satiate himself. If we imagine all that domestic and wild animals, the foulest and the most greedy, are capable of devouring, we will get an idea of the tastes, as well as the the needs of Tarare. Dogs and cats fled at his appearance, as if they could guess the fate he was preparing for them 2.

Even so, one day he grabbed a large cat which he prepared to eat. Doctor Lorentz, chief doctor of the army, was warned of this when he had come to do his rounds of the hospital. Tarare, holding the living animal by the neck and the paws, tore into its stomach with his teeth, sucked the blood, and before long left nothing but the skeleton. Half an hour later, he threw up the fur like a carnivore or bird of prey, and all of the health officers assisted him, not without reluctance, with this double quarry. Snakes greatly appealed to Tarare: like the psylla of the Orient, and the cockroaches of America, he handled them familiarly, and ate the largest grass snakes without losing a morcel. Gesner tells us, with little plausibility, that a fisherman swallowed a living eel, and brought it back up alive after 24 hours. We asked Tarare to do the same; he agreed to it, but we noticed that he crushed the head of the eel between his teeth. The rest, he did not chew, and it went down in one piece.

We saw him swallow, in a few moments, a dinner prepared for fifteen German workmen: it was four bowls of curdled milk, and two enormous plates of the masses of dough which, in the country, we cook in water with salt, and of fat. After this almost unbelievable meal, his stomach, usually flabby and wrinkled, became taut like a ball, and the glutton went to sleep until the next day without even the smallest discomfort. The ease with which he swallowed the most voluminous and tough objects gave Mr. Courville the idea to make him swallow a large wooden lancet case, in which, after having destroyed its inner compartments, he locked up a rolled sheet of white paper: this was, he told Tarare, to find out if he could serve in the secret correspondence. Tarare did not hesitate, and the case, which he wet with his saliva, had soon made the journey down the throat to the stomach. The following day, he brought it back well washed to Mr. Courville, who, having opened it with an effort, found the paper inside dry and in a good state. This health officer informed General de Beauharnais, Chief of Staff of the Army, to whom he had already talked about Tarare's strange voracity, of this new fact. Tarare was sent for at once: he devoured, in front of several general officers, nearly thirty pounds of raw liver and lungs. After this they ordered him to bring a letter, in the same case that he had already swallowed and brought up, to a French colonel who had been captured by the Prussians near Landau, and to furthermore be at Neustadt, where the king of Prussia had his headquarters. This letter, which Tarare thought of utmost importance, only contained a simple invitation to this officer to give his news through the same channel, and with the same special delivery. He left during the night, having the message in his stomach, and disguised as a peasant. In case of delay in his voyage, and assuming that the case came out too early, he had to swallow it again, and thus make his errand safe.

Some leagues from Landau, our messenger fell upon a Prussian outpost, whose major, after having searched him in vain, beat him harshly, and sent him well-escorted to General Zoegli, who, in turn, also searched him with just as little success, and beat him again with even more force. After this inopportune start, he was kept in custody as a spy, having only some coins, with which he obtained abundant scraps of army bread, which the most starving soldiers in the would could not without astonishment watch him eat in so little time.

However, the case, closed for thirty hours, was asking to leave. He had to not only evade the sight of the two sentries with whom he would go through his day, but furthermore make them walk the same path, without their knowledge, on pain of being hanged from the first tree, according to the laws of war. These two operations very happily succeeded for Tarare, who avoided a third beating, after which he was sent back to the French camp, from which he quickly returned to the hospital at Soultz.

Disgusted forever by the dangerous project of serving in the secret correspondence, he pretended to want or desire to actually cure his inconvenient polyphagia. We thus kept him at this hospital for some time. We gave him acidic drinks, preparations of opium, and even tobacco pills, as well as Levant nut, like the Indians who, in long voyages, used it to calm and dull their hunger; but these means were all fruitless; and besides, as Tarare had so much pleasure in eating, he seemed to fear rather than hope for his recovery.

As we were no longer caring for this living cavern as much as in the beginning, he was obliged to provide for his own enormous needs, and this was often at the expense of sheep pens, barnyards, and others' kitchens. He also went into butcheries and remote places, to fight with dogs and wolves over their vile food, and this characteristic ended up making him the horror and the dread of the neighborhood: nobody wanted to see him anymore, or even let him approach. Some of our nurses made it public that they had seen him drink the blood of patients who had just been bled; and others, that they had caught him satisfying his abominable hunger in the morgue. A child of 14 months having suddenly disappeared, dreadful suspicions rose up against him. Finally, we drove out this wretch who we doubtless should have contained in a house of correction if, through a deplorable abuse of liberty, we had not had them all eliminated or evacuated.

Since this expulsion, which took place at the end of year 2 [the middle of 1794], and until the month of Fructidor in year 6 [roughly August 1798], I could not say what happened to Tarare, or in which countries he exercised or hid his gluttony; around this last epoch, I discovered him at the Versailles hospice. Mr. Tessier, the chief surgeon, told me that Tarare had entered two months ago, in a state of emaciation which was soon to destroy him, and which had, for a long time, put an end to the voracity that had caused it. This is what explains the obscurity in which he had passed the long interval, during which, despite the great events of the Revolution, we did not fail to speak of a monster who also deserved to occupy the public, as weary as it was of more and more disastrous and frightful stories.

Tarare asked for me on many occasions. He maintained that he had a silver fork in his stomach, which he hadn't been able to bring up in the two years since he swallowed it, and claimed that his illness did not have any other cause. After several months, he reached the last stage of consumption, and died exhausted by a rotten and purulent diarrhea which forecast a general suppuration of the abdominal organs.

A few hours after his death, his body was so rotten that we hesitated to open him up; but we were curious to know if know if the silver fork was actually still there, and Mr. Tessier, braving the disgust and the danger of such an autopsy, made up his mind to carry out a search which only succeeded in showing him putrefied entrails, bathed in pus and mixed up together, without any trace of a foreign body.

The liver was excessively large, without consistency, and in a state of putrilage; the gallbladder also had a considerable volume; the stomach, flabby and dotted with ulcerated plaques, covered almost all of the lower abdominal region. It was impossible for Mr. Tessier or his pupils to withstand enough time with the stench of this cadaver in order to press on with the inspection as far as they intended to take it.

Tarare must have been, when he died, around 26 years old; he was of a mediocre height, and had a thin and frail body type. His appearance had nothing cruel: his expression was timid; the little hair that he had kept was very blonde, and of an extreme fineness. His cheeks, pale, and furrowed with long and deep wrinkles, could, like those of some monkeys, and those of street entertainers in Egypt, stretch out and hide a large stock of food, and up to twelve eggs or rather large apples. His mouth was very fissured; he had almost no lips; he was not missing a single tooth: the molars were only remarkable for their wear, and the marbled color of their enamel; the others, well separated and tidy, were either acute, or sharp, but without resembling those of any carnivore.

The interval between his jaws, spread apart as much as they could be, was nearly a decimeter. In this state, with his head being tilted backwards, the buccal space and the esophagus formed a rectilinear canal; in this way a cylinder of 2 and even 3 decimeters could be introduced without touching the palate.

Tarare was constantly sweating, and from his body, always feverish, came steam that was noticeable to the eye, and even more to the nose. At some times, he stank to such a point that at twenty steps one could not have endured his approach. He rather frequently had diarrhea, and his evacuations were of an unbearable fetidity; when he had not eaten his fill, the skin of his stomach could almost go around his body. Once sated, the vapor which usually enveloped him increased; his cheekbones and his eyes became a glowing red; a sudden drowsiness, a sort of stupor seized him, and he went to digest in an isolated place.

It was announced to me that he was ruminating, that he was affected by merycism [that is, he was bringing food up from his stomach and chewing and swallowing it again]. Curious to verify this fact, which as they said only happened when Tarare was prevented from sleeping while filled to satiety, I examined him attentively, but without being able to assure myself that food was transferred from the bottom of his stomach into his mouth, as was observed in the Italian monk that Plazzonni and Fabrizi d'Acquapendente spoke of, and as we have seen in individuals prone to rumination, which have since been encountered by Peyer and by other observers. I only noticed that, after each of the noisy burps of which Tarare was tormented at the depths of his digestion, he moved his jaw a little, and made, as if twitching, some swallowing movements.

We have still not explained to a satisfactory manner the cause of bulimia, or of the morbid hungers, of the bizarre appetites, passing or enduring, of which the exercise of medicine occasionally offers examples, not only in insanity, chlorosis and pregnancy, but also in people who appear just as healthy in body as in spirit; it is difficult to account for this monstrous edacity, which makes a man blush at his fellow, which degrades the one who is affected by it, and makes him fall to the status of an animal. However, there are cases of polyphagia where the anatomical exam revealed an origin in analogous species, at the same time as it opened the field to conjectures and probabilities. The famous Lazare, whose story Colombo has preserved, became a polyphage because, being unable to taste anything, he became indifferent to whether he was eating old leather, coals, or bread. Accustomed since his childhood to swallowing without cease, for want of food, he did like the Ottomans and the inhabitants of New Caledonia; he swallowed earth and plaster, to fill his stomach in some way, and dull the feeling of hunger. On the death of this man, Colombo discovered that the gustatory nerves, instead of going towards the mouth and the tongue, were reflected towards the back of the skull, and by this aberration, prevented all pleasant tastes.

The glutton of Toulouse, of which Barthélemy Labror gave us an observation, was of a gigantic height. The opening of his cadaver presented a phenomenon that I will let Cabrol, who, as we know, wrote near the end of the sixteenth century, tell himself:

"The cause of his enormous voracity was unheard of, and almost miraculous and incredible: because instead of having a stomach and six intestines, it did not have the proportionate form or figure of either of those, but rather of the esophagus; it ended in an ample capacity, resembling the bottom of a very large summer spinning wheel [?], which on the right side, below the large lobe of the liver, near the gallbladder, returned upwards, so that the food remained there for a longer time in order to digest, because there was no pylorus to prevent it from leaving: there followed afterwards an intestine from the place where there ought to be said pylorus, until the fundament, without any revolution, and instead of having six or seven long jugs, only contained four flat pans, almost like a letter S, but of a strange size."

This singular conformation, seeming, from several reports, like that of a lion, a wolf, or another carnivore, must give the subject some of the inclinations of these animals; and indeed, he had a sudden, impatient, and vicious hunger; he ate ravenously like them, digested just as quickly, and was hardly less furious when he didn't immediately have something to satisfy his appetite. He died, aged 40, of jaundice.

At another time I opened up a 20-year-old polyphage who had been killed by the kick of a horse as he was leaving a house where he was amusing himself eating at his leisure. He was an imbecile who, wearing a simple blue canvas dress, and led by his brother, begged for alms, and many people gave liberally to him, perhaps less in the spirit of religion than by reason of curiosity, for his dress barely hid one of the most marvelous extravagances of nature. The stomach of this wretch contained more than a bucket of food; it seemed to compose the whole of his lower abdomen, and one would rather have taken it for that of a horse than for that of a human. The pylorus merged, without curvature or detour, and by a large pavilion, with the duodenum which, after a journey of some decimeters, suddenly broadening, formed a pocket like an average urinary bladder, below which it narrowed in order to open out a little lower, and offer a second pouch half the size of the previous; so one could look at these expansions, like so many supernumary stomachs, as reservoirs where the main organ poured the overflow of food without any prior preparation; the other intestines were collapsed under the weight of these ventricles; they had a considerable diameter; they presented, large and small, many more circular folds than usual, and their length could be equal to five times that of the subject.

At Strasbourg, they once exhibited the stomach of a Hungarian hussar, who, while living, could drink up to 30 pots of wine (60 liters) in one hour, comparable in this to the Milanese 3 who, in the presence of Tiberius, drank in a few gulps three congii [about 9.8 liters, see], which gave him the nickname Triconge, and to the Roman who, in the time of Galen, swallowed several amphora without relaxing, continuo fervore [with continuous fervor]; it was like that again when he urinated with the same abundance and the same quickness; and in addition, he sweated wine, as Caspar Bartholin had already observed, as a student in Denmark, very excessively. This stomach, striking for its prodigious fullness, was made even more striking by three appendices, situated along the large curvature, and of which the most prominent corresponded to the cardia, and resembled an ordinary purse with its rounded bottom and pleated edges.

Bonnet, Ruysch, and our Dionis cite several examples of conformations similar to those which were just reported, and these authors do not waver from attributing to this the cause of the hunger and insatiability that these individuals had been tormented with during their lifetime.

In fact, one can imagine that such an extraordinary gastric apparatus is useful not only to hold a mass of food out of all proportion, as with Tarare, but also to speed up the course and distribution in the intestinal tube, and to accelerate the more or less perfect work of a digestion which must bring the same desires and make room for new food.

This singular structure may be congenital, and then this gluttony must have started when life did, as we see in some children who rarely reach adolescence; or else it is the result of habitual excess, and in this case, the scrawny disease only manifests itself at a certain age, so that it becomes somewhat villainous.

But without doubt such a vicious form of the organs, whether it is native or a replacement, is not the only cause of the appetite beyond measure. Almost always, with the large eaters, the liver, the gallbladder, and the spleen have exceeded the ordinary size, and one can believe that the over-abundance of bile, as well as its worsening, are not strangers to the phenomenon in question. The child whose extreme hunger had so amazed Morgagni, was lienteric [undigested food was passsed in the feces]; the man of Toulouse had jaundice; and the individuals mentioned by Bonnet all had more or less diseased livers.

The gluttony of Tarare can still be explained in some way. This subject also had a stomach of an immense capacity, and it is probable that the habit of filling it, from an early age, with stones and all sorts of foreign bodies, have had a large part in giving him this widening of which the intestines had very certainly participated; thus he had established, with these decisions, a particular way of living, of excitability, of organism, and the nature of the circulation and the other functions must have thus been changed; it was necessary, in the state of emptiness, that everything slumped; that the vessels of all types folded in on themselves; that the organs without support should fall from the inertia; that the stagnation of the blood multiplied everywhere; that the phrenic region was affected by worries, and that the organs of respiration were carried along, in this loss of balance, in the general collapse of the abdominal system.

So Tarare, on an empty stomach, was exhausted, languishing, without strength or thoughts; he could only get over this weakening by means of a quantity of food in proportion to the void in his entrails; and the need to stretch these, to provide them a point of support, was for him the principal stimulus of his hunger.

When he knew to stop, he was lively and nimble after his meal; when he unreservedly surrendered to his voracity, he became heavy and lethargic; the necessity to gorge himself had accustomed him to eat everything; nothing now could repel him; it was the ballast that he needed; but I think that if he had always had as much food as he wanted, he would not have contemplated drinking blood, or tearing into corpses, or making even more horrible feasts.

Tarare ate more than ten other men, and although largely digesting what he ate, he neither became fatter nor more bloated. This is explained by the extreme abundance of his evacuations, which were of an unbearable fetidness; by the sweat of which he was constantly soaked, and by the pulmonary transpiration [evaporating sweat] which resembled, at all times, torrents of steam: losses which, constantly re-establishing the level, constantly brought his needs back to life. The soldier that was seen recently in Paris was in the same state; he sweated continually, his head always seeming to be plunged in a cloud of vapor, and his breath was excessively hot and moist. This man probably died like Tarare, with whom he had several similarities. Polyphages rarely pass forty years of age. For them, nature cannot for long hold out against the work by which it is constantly overwhelmed. The organs wear out quickly, and life gives out in the same way. Their existence is a kind of continual disease; their usual state is a fever that consumes them, and the chemists would explain better than I the disorders that a caloric excess, that an extraordinary absorption of oxygen must produce in the body of these individuals, whose career, moreover, is always too long for society.


1. Theagenes of Thasos could eat a bull, according to Caelius, book 7, chapter 11.

Milo of Croton devoured twenty minae [see] of meat, and as much bread, et vini tres choas [and three chous, see, of wine]. Id., book 15, chapter 19.

One day he ate taurum quadrinum [four bulls], after having carried them on his shoulders per stadium [through the stadium]. (In Olympiade.)

Artydame and Cambles, kings of Lydia, were large eaters. The latter ate his wife in one night, as the story goes.

Aglais was a great eater. See Elysius Jucundarum Quaestionum Campus, page 724.

2. Jean Riezemb, Hist. Nat., book 3, chapter 9, says he saw at the Spanish court (aulá Philippicá) a man who ate everything: leather, fabric, rats, and live cats: vivum fellem, cum pelle et pilis [the living fell, with skin and hair].

3. Novellus Torquatus Mediolanensis, named in Pliny [Natural History], book 14, chapter 22.

Seneca, Letter 84, and Tacitus, book 6 of the Annals, speak of a L. Pison who, with his own prince, drank for two days and two nights without rest. One was appointed the tyrant proconsul; the other obtained the highest offices of the state.

Lodovico Ricchieri mentions a certain Dioticus of Athens, surnamed choni [funnel], because one could funnel wine into him without helping him swallow.