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Friday, 12 September 2014

The Mystery of the Elephant Skeleton

One of the many mysteries that I encountered when I began my research into the story of Salt and Sauce the elephants was the nature of the disease that infected their original group. Now a recently published article in volume 17, issue 3 of the journal, "Veterinary History", might shed some light on this subject. 

In 1902 George Lockhart Snr took delivery of four female elephants, which he gave the eccentric names, Salt, Pepper, Sauce and Mustard - Lockhart's Cruet. Within a short time of their arrival it became clear that Mustard was unwell. She was exhibiting symptoms that used to be referred to as "dropsy". This condition consists of large fluid-filled swellings on the external parts of the body. George's son reported that a veterinary surgeon was called in who recommended lancing the swellings, but this was unsuccessful. Mustard died of her symptoms and was replaced by a new elephant, Vinegar, a second Mustard. Then the mysterious disease claimed Pepper. Salt also became infected. In desperation George contacted London Zoo who advised on a cure, which saved Salt and the rest of group.

My 2008 book, "The Legend of Salt and Sauce", I put forward that we did not determine the exact disease that had infected The Cruet or the cure advised by London Zoo. However, through consultations with International Zoo Veterinary Group and veterinary literature on treating elephants published in the early part of the 20th century we found a likely in the form of parasitic flatworms. Several elephants imported from India over the turn of the century were found to be infected by these worms, which they had probably picked up from the swamps and passed onto each other. We cited a case, where such worms had wiped out a group of elephants owned by Sanger's elephants in the 1870s. I understood and noted that one of nematode worms newly discovered after an elephant's post mortem was named Dochmisu Sangeri.

This new article, "The Elephant Memorial to Two Notable Veterinary Surgeons" by Bruce Vivash Jones, begins with mystery of "an obviously elderly skeleton of a young Indian elephant (Elephas indicus)". The origin of the skeleton was unknown to the Camden Town Campus of the Royal Veterinary College, where it had resided since before anyone living who worked there could remember. It had just always been there. Jones suggests that it was one of Sanger's ill-fated elephants. This he took from the unpublished manuscript of Major-General Frederick Smith, an army veterinary surgeon.

Smith was brought in to examine Sanger's elephants. When one died he performed a post mortem and declared cause of death as "parasitic invasion of the stomach". Smith and his mentor and fellow army veterinary surgeon, John Henry Steel, undertook all the subsequent post mortems of the unfortunate herd. Smith remarked that he and Steel "set up several anatomical specimens for the Museum of the Royal Veterinary College, including that of a complete skeleton". Jones puts it that Smith is describing the Camden Town elephant skeleton.

The article describes how the remarkable investigation by these two two surgeons into the circus elephants was a breakthrough in veterinary research. Smith collected all the stomach parasites found and submitted them to Dr T. Spencer Cobbold. Cobbold was surprised to see that so little research had been done into internal parasites that affected Indian elephants given how important these animals were to their native country's economy. He wrote in his paper, "The Parasites of Elephants", that up until 1869 only four elephant stomach parasites had been identified. After Smith's submission, he could identify 12 different species that had been found in Indian elephants. Incidentally Smith, "at the age of nineteen years and only six months after graduating", joined Sanger in also having a nematode named after him, Filari Smithi. The article goes on to explain that both Smith and Steel went on to become eminent veterinary surgeons. However, yet again, we see that circus is intrinsically connected to important developments in our society. 

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