In 1869, national and medical attention was focused on a poor family in Wales. The daughter, twelve year-old Sarah Jacob, was bedridden with a strange ailment characterized by paralysis, staring fits, and anorexia. Yet she did not waste away. On the contrary, she seemed to survive comfortably with only few drops of water daily. Credulous folk came to visit, knowing that such abstinence had been the practice of many Christian saints; they would leave a few coins as an offering, although the family protested that money had never been requested. Others claimed it was a hoax.

Eventually the doctors and vicars became curious. An initial investigation upheld the family’s position that the girl did not eat. A more rigorous second investigation was designed by medical professors from Guy’s Hospital in London and carried out by trained nurses who sat knitting at the bedside. It resulted in the girl’s death.


The history of fasting girls as saints and anorexics has been well documented in recent years. Here is a different twist to the record that took place when anorexia nervosa was on the verge of being formulated as a disease: a young girl who, with the help of her family, PRETENDED to fast for months on end. When put in the awkward position of having to prove her abstinence, she gravely sickened and died. Cule speculates as to the family’s motives, the likely source of secret feedings, and even whether or not the parents were aware of the hoax. Devastated by their daughter’s death, neither seemed to have understood the risk of allowing the watch.

More perplexing is the relentless cruelty that marked the medical investigation. Did the doctors secretly believe that they might actually be in the presence of a saint? Why was the watch maintained and food withheld for so long? What impact did the investigation have on the medical formulations of anorexia about to be published almost simultaneously in 1873 by W. W. Gull of London and Ernest Charles Lasegue of Paris? This thought-provoking short book reads like a detective story, while providing references to all the original sources.



Place Published

Llandysul, Wales



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