Crawling on Deaf Ears: Seven Ways to Oust an Insect from Your Ear

by Dr Hannah Newton

Each day in the UK, 6 or 7 people – mainly children – undergo a medical procedure to remove a foreign object from the ear canal, with an annual cost to the NHS of around £2.8 million. In the majority of cases, the offending items are small inanimate objects, such as buttons, beads, or parts from toys, but very occasionally, something live enters the ear – a creepy crawly! If you’re feeling brave, you can watch on youtube the very moment when a waxy spider, earwig, or cockroach emerges from an unsuspecting ear.

Figure 1

The Flea and the Louse. The diagram of the flea is after Robert Hooke; Wellcome Collection CC BY.

Four hundred years ago, these ear-invading insects were ubiquitous. Early modern medical texts and housewifery manuals are replete with tips for how to keep one’s bed free from fleas and bedbugs, along with signs of what to look – or listen – out for when an insect ‘has crept into the Head whilst you sleep’. Felix Platter (1536–1614), a Swiss physician, wrote in his chapter on the ‘hurts of the hearing’, that if a ‘quick thing’ – insect – ‘creeps into the eare’, you will hear a ‘very troublesome’ sound, ‘like the flying of a Butterfly’. He added that if the bug is a large ‘Worm with many legs’, it may ‘wholly stop up the Ear’, making the patient deaf.

Nowadays, the usual method for removing an insect is to first kill it with the anesthetic lidocaine, and then to wash it out with warm water, or extract it with small pinchers or a suction catheter. In the early modern period, a wider variety of techniques were used, some of which seem to show a surprising regard for the preferences of the insect as well as the patient! Below are 7 of my favourites.

Figure 2

An Old Maid in Search of a Flea, etching by A. M. D. (1794); Wellcome Collection CC BY.

  1. Felix Platter’s enticing treats, from Platerus golden practice of physick (1664)

Somtimes we Allure living Creatures, with certain things which are pleasing to them, that they may creep outward, and so then they may be laid hold on; [for example] apply Milk with Sugar in a Spunge to the Eare, or…the inside of a Fig, or a crust of Bread, or an Apple, or the like, or Bacon Grease, with which Worms are sooner enticed.

  1. Mrs Corlyon’s roasted apple, 1606
Figure 3

Mrs Corylon’s recipe book, MS.213/18; Wellcome Collection CC BY.

A medecine to drawe an Earewigge out of the Eare. Take a sweete Aple and rost it in the fyer untill it bee halfe rosted, then take of the softest of it, and spreade it very thicke upon a Lynnen clothe, and lay it to your eare as hott as you can suffer [i.e. bear] it, and Lye upon the same syde, and when you do feele it stir, you must Lye very still until it be come to the Hole, and then you must very sodainely pluck it away Least the Earewigge retorne into your heade againe. And if you thinke there be any more Laye a newe one to your eare.

  1. William Salmon’s garlic water from The family dictionary (1695)

If any Worm, or Earwig, has crept into the Head…to…bring it away, Take three or four Cloves of Garlick, stamp them in a Mortar…then lay them in clean Water to soak a while, and so wring out the Juice with a clean Cloth, and put a few drops of the Liquor into the Ear; and it will…work it out with the Wax.

  1. Nicholas Culpeper’s grape steam from Culpeper’s last legacy (1655)

Verjuyce sod[den], and put hot into a tin bottle, with a narrow mouth, and the mouth of the bottle held to the eare, that the fume may go up into the head…if any quick thing be gotten into the eare, it will quickly bring it out.

  1. Jane Jackson’s eel ointment, 1642.

A medicine for any quicke thing in the eare: Take fengreene…and the greace of an eele and put it in the eare. Another: Take the juice of wild tansey and power [pour] it in the eare.

  1. The Boyle family’s ivy water,1675-c.1710
Figure 4

Boyle Family Recipes, MS.1340/24; Wellcome Collection CC BY.

A Medicine…for deafness in the ear or to kill any thing that has crept into ye Ear. Take Ground Ivy, Chop it and seeth it in Water, when it is very well sodden put it into a narrow mouthd pot, throw a broad Cloth over your head and hold your Ear close over the Potts mouth, that the Air of the hot Liquour may strike into your Head, do this till you find Ease. It hath helpen Many.

  1. Felix Platter’s dramatic dancing, in Golden practice of physic (1664)

We shake them out by…by Dancing and beating [i.e. stamping] the Foot of that side…[or by] holding the Head with the Hands, and…shak[ing]…as Boyes are wont to shake out [water] after bathing in the River, if any thing hath flowed into their Ears.

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