Guest Post: Ashley Mathisen on the Curious History of the Spinal Machine

Ashley Mathisen recently graduated from Oxford University with a DPhil in History, and is currently working on course development in the History Department at Guelph University, while pursuing a Bachelor of Education at York University. Her doctoral dissertation examined the role of the London Foundling Hospital as a center for research on childhood illness in the eighteenth century. Her current research focuses on the experience of childhood disability in eighteenth-century Britain, the emergence of disability technology in the popular press, and the links between early pediatrics and orthopedics.

Disability Devices for Children: The Curious History of the Spinal Machine

diagram of spine machine from 1783

Timothy Sheldrake, An essay on the various causes and effects of the distorted spine. . . (London: DillyLondon, 1783). Wellcome Library.

Eighteenth-century medical practitioners were in a particularly interesting position when it came to children’s medicine. Child patients were, of course, treated by medical practitioners before the rise of paediatric medicine as a formal speciality, but many medical men had limited knowledge of children’s health, and many were reticent to involve themselves with a patient population so prone to disease and death. Children’s medicine was also associated with mothers, nurses, and midwives, and was considered beneath the dignity of many medical men, some of whom also felt that a man could not possibly understand a child’s body in quite the same way as a woman could. Many were also put off by the prospect of treating patients unable to vocalize their symptoms. Finally, it is entirely possible that some medical men were, quite simply, uninterested in children. Fortunately, as the eighteenth century progressed, some of these obstacles were discarded and the subject of child health began to occupy a more prominent place in medical discussions and in medical education.

Along with this increased interest in the bodies and health of children came a diverse set of “solutions” for correcting childhood disability or for integrating the disabled child into society. One of the more curious solutions was the “spinal machine”. In his Zoonomia, Erasmus Darwin referred to a machine:

capable of improvement by joints in the bar at the back of it, to permit the body to bend forwards with-out diminishing the extension of the spine. The objections of this machine of M. Vacher, which is made by Mr. Jones, are first, that it is worn in the day-time, and has a very unsightly appearance. Mr. Jones has endeavoured to remedy this, by taking away the curved bar over the head, and substituting in its place a forked bar, rising up behind each ear, with webs fastened to it, which pass under the chin and occiput. But this is not an improvement, but a deterioration of M. Vacher’s machine, as it prevents the head from turning with facility to either side.[1]

The spinal machine Darwin ascribed to Vacher was comprised of a whalebone corset, to which was attached a metal staff used to support the head and lengthen or straighten the spine. Darwin himself went on to devise two spinal machines: one for sitting (an armchair grasping the head and supporting the neck), and the other a sloping bed which supported the neck while extending the spine. Vacher’s machine was widely considered to be an improvement on other spinal devices, like the neck swing, since Vacher’s apparatus “does not prevent children from dancing, drawing, or writing”.[2]

By 1777, Philip Jones, “Spinal Stay and Machine-maker”, was “offering his Spinal Machine to the public in general” and was “so happy to find, that by experience, it has proved an effectual remedy for curing distortions of the spine in children”.[3] In the same year, Jones was hired by the London Foundling Hospital to examine several girls suffering from distortions of the spine. For three guineas a piece, Jones tailored a machine for two of the Foundling children, though he refused to charge the Hospital for his time.[4] Two and a half months later, he returned and demonstrated the use of the machines for the general committee of the Hospital, recording that Blanch Rivers was three feet, nine inches without the machine, and three feet, nine inches and five eighths with the machine on. Bridget Smith was not measured at this time, since it was felt that her distortion was far less severe. The two girls, Blanch Rivers and Bridget Smith, were thirteen and eight years of age, respectively, when Jones was brought to the Hospital to tailor their spinal machines. Rivers had been returned to the Hospital by her apprentice master in 1775 as a result of her disability, which accounts for the Hospital’s eagerness to consult with Jones about remedying her distortion.[5] Rivers was not subsequently apprenticed, but was instead released from the Hospital’s care at age 24, suggesting that her disability persisted and continued to pose a difficulty in securing an apprenticeship on her behalf. Bridget Smith was apprenticed successfully in 1781, suggesting that her distortion had become less problematic, or that it posed no challenge as far as her apprentice master was concerned.

The spinal machine represents a fascinating chapter in disability history and in the history of paediatric medicine. The efforts of Vacher, Darwin, Jones, and others reveal a great deal about medical attitudes to childhood disability, and the impetus to “cure”, rather than simply care, for the disabled child. Frustratingly, we know very little about how Blanch Rivers, Bridget Smith, and other similar children experienced their disabilities, or even if they considered them as such. While the story of the spinal machine in the eighteenth century can only ever be partially complete, it is a narrative worth exploring, since it tells us so much about social and medical attitudes to the bodies, and minds of children who lay outside the accepted norm.


[1] Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, The laws of organic life. In three parts, vol. ii (London, 1796), 89.
[2] Timothy Sheldrake, An essay on the various causes and effects of the distorted spine (London, 1783), 23.
[3] “Classified ads”, Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (London, England), Thursday, January 9, 1777; Issue 14 938.
[4] London Foundling Hospital Sub-Committee Minutes, 23 August 1777, London Metropolitan Archives.
[5] London Foundling Hospital General Committee Minutes, 22 Nov 1775, London Metropolitan Archives.

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