We all know a few people who struggle with self discipline when it comes eating, but few and far between are the genuine cases of polyphagia, a clinical and usually life-threatening condition characterized by obsessive appetite and an abnormally large intake of solids by mouth. Two of its most extreme sufferers were the Frenchman simply known as Tarrare and a Polish man named Charles Domery. Curiously enough, not only were they were contemporaries of each other, living and dying during the final quarter of the 18th century, but both men served in the French Revolutionary Army as well.
Wondercabinet is normally too proud to quote at length from Wikipedia, but in this case it would be hard to improve upon what has already been written about these men. If their cases weren’t so extensively documented, the facts would be, um, extremely difficult to swallow. Both men were infamous for eating live animals–Domery usually limited himself to cats (once eating 174 in a single year), but Tarrare devoured everything from puppies to live eels without chewing them. The latter was clearly the more monstrous of the two.
He was described as having unusually soft fair hair, and an abnormally wide mouth in which his teeth were heavily stained, and on which the lips were almost invisible. When he had not eaten, his skin would hang so loosely that he could wrap the fold of skin from his abdomen around his waist, and when full his abdomen would distend “like a huge balloon”. The skin of his cheeks was wrinkled and hung loosely, and when stretched out he could hold twelve eggs or apples in his mouth. His body was hot to the touch and he sweated heavily and constantly suffered from foul body odor; he was described as stinking “to such a degree that he could not be endured within the distance of twenty paces”. This smell would get noticeably worse after he had eaten, his eyes and cheeks would become bloodshot, a visible vapour would rise from his body, and he would become lethargic, during which time he would belch noisily and his jaws would make swallowing motions. He suffered from chronic diarrhea, which was said to be “fetid beyond all conception”.
Both men were subjected to controlled experiments. Under observation by two surgeons at a French military hospital, “Tarrare was presented with a live cat. He tore the cat’s abdomen open with his teeth and drank its blood, and proceeded to eat the entire cat aside from its bones, before vomiting up its fur and skin.” As disgusting and impressive as that sounds, the following account suggests that Domery would have won the championship eat-off between them.
Dr Cochrane, [a] Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, performed an experiment to test Domery’s eating capacity and tolerance for unusual foods. At 4:00 am, Domery was awakened and fed 4 lb (1.8 kg) of raw cow’s udder, which was eaten without hesitation. At 9:30 am he was given a meal of 5 lb (2.3 kg) of raw beef, twelve large tallow candles totaling one pound (453 g), and a bottle of porter, all of which were consumed. At 1:00 pm Domery was given another meal of a further 5 lb of beef, a pound (453 g) of candles, and three large bottles of porter, all of which were also eaten and drunk. During the course of the experiment he did not defecate, urinate or vomit at any point, his pulse remained regular and his skin did not change temperature. Upon Domery’s return to his quarters at 6:15 pm following the conclusion of the experiment, he was recorded as being of “particularly good cheer”, and danced, smoked his pipe and drank a further bottle of porter.