Science on the Cutting Edge

Science on the Cutting Edge
Swallowing the Science of the Sword
by Tim Anderson, Medical Migrant

The medical community is abuzz - there’s been a breakthrough.

You flip on the TV. Sure, you’ve seen them before, but there’s something about press conferences you find irresistible. The throng of eager reporters, the normally reclusive scientists clad in impeccably pressed, pure white lab coats, exhibiting an air of exuberance befitting their first public sighting in five years. You’re not sure what’s up, but you can tell it’s going to be big.
Pan left.

An intruder. A middle-aged man sporting a growth of whiskers smiles mischievously. He steps into the light, tosses back a cape, revealing a red and navy pirate outfit. Though flashy, the swashbuckler’s colorful costume stands out in stark contrast to the sterile scientific environment of black and white. He draws a 3-foot sword from his scabbard, tilts back his head, and plunges the length of the sword down his throat.

The scientists erupt in wild applause.

Science and swords may seem an odd pair. But, without the contribution of sword swallowers, we may not have some of today’s most critical diagnostic tools. Sword swallowers rigorously train themselves to ignore the body’s natural gag reflex, making them the perfect test subjects.

February 28, 2008 is International Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day. In their honor, and to gain insight into their medical contributions, let’s take a closer look at the development of the endoscope.

Today’s flexible endoscopes are widely used by physicians to visually inspect various internal aspects of the body, including the esophagus, the nasal passage, the colon (yikes!), and the respiratory tract. Man’s interest in getting a look inside the human body dates back centuries, and a prototype of an endoscope was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii.

But it was not until 1868 that a physician first peered through an endoscope directly into a human stomach. Eureka! Dr. Adolph Kussmaul, a renowned German physician, developed several innovative diagnostic procedures. But, when it came to fashioning a functioning endoscope, the challenge seemed beyond his reach.

He’d read of the development, by Antoine Jean Desormeaux in France, of a small tube to examine the urinary tract and bladder. He began work on a similar design for studying the stomach, but his progress soon faltered. Then, the hand of fate swept in. His assistant, while enjoying a pint at a local inn after a hard day’s work, was captivated by the evening’s performer – a sword swallower.

He gulped down his pint and raced back to tell Dr. Kussmaul what he’d witnessed.

Kussmaul quickly set about designing a prototype based on the sword swallower’s act. He meticulously sketched out the specifications - a rigid 18-inch stainless steel tube, one-half inch in diameter. He’d illuminate it with an external alcohol-turpentine lamp, like Desormeaux. He took the drawings to an instrument maker, a skilled craftsman, and the resulting endoscope was perfect.

Kussmaul’s device was revolutionary. Interest in peering into the very core of the human body spread quickly, and he was asked to demonstrate the endoscope in Freiburg at a meeting of the Society of Naturalists. But, how could he possibly do so? Where would he find someone capable of serving as a test subject? Yes, of course – he would take the sword swallower along.

This rudimentary beginning laid the foundation for the modern, flexible endoscope. Dr. Kussmaul and his sword-swallowing associate toured extensively, giving demonstrations at leading hospitals, and soon even Desormeaux was using an endoscope to examine esophageal disorders.

Men of steel. In 1894, sword swallower Chevalier Cliquot swallowed 14 swords at one time, stunning the physicians at New York’s Metropolitan Throat Hospital so much, that one doctor impulsively rushed in and removed the swords at once, causing lacerations that left the performer incapacited for months. In the 1930s Delno Fritz made the ultimate sacrifice for science. He died of complications from testing a bronchialscope. During the testing a screw came loose and lodged in his lung, resulting in pneumonia and his untimely demise.

Today there are less than a few dozen surviving sword swallowers left actively performing worldwide. Gone are the days of the traveling sideshows where they plied their dangerous craft. Gone are the acts of daring that tantalize all, traumatize the young, and terrify the fainthearted. Gone are the magical days of covering one’s face, not daring to look, but being unable to turn away.

Or, are they?

February 28, 2008 is International Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day. Dan Meyer, Executive Director of the Sword Swallower's Association International (SSAI), said the day is being held in conjunction with February’s National Swallowing Awareness Month.

“We sword swallowers have been risking our lives to perform the ancient art of sword swallowing for over 4000 years, but many people don't believe it’s real, or they think that the art has died out," Meyer explained. "We have chosen this day to honor veteran sword swallowers, to raise awareness of the medical contributions that sword swallowers have made to the fields of medicine and science, and to correct misconceptions about the art by performing for medical facilities and the media around the world on this day. "

Meyer and his co-author Dr. Brian Witcombe are the recipients of the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine. The Ig Nobel Prizes are presented each year at Harvard for discoveries that, “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” They won the award for their article, “Sword Swallowing and its side effects,” published in the British Medical Journal in 2006. The pair will participate in the 2008 British Ig Nobel Tour in March speaking and putting on demonstrations at medical and scientific events normally known to be quite scholarly, even dry or stuffy.

But at these events, though you might not see a flashy swashbuckler’s outfit, if you listen, you may hear the “schwing” of a sword being pulled from its scabbard… And if you look closely enough, you might recognize the mischievous smile with protruding hilt among the white labcoats…Science and swords… perhaps they are not such an odd pair after all…

To learn more about the art and science of sword swallowing, or to inquire about a demonstration on the 28th, visit the Sword Swallower's Association International website at

Happy Sword Swallower's Day!

Happy Sword Swallower's Day!

The Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) has proclaimed February 28th annual "International Sword Swallower's Awareness Day" in conjunction with February as "National Swallowing Disorders Awareness Month".

If you've had an endoscope, fluoroscopy, or electrocardiogram, you can THANK A SWORD SWALLOWER, as sword swallowers were used by doctors to develop these tools.

If you ARE a sword swallower...

Heads back, hilts up... SWALLOW!

For more information:

Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI)

International Sword Swallowers Awareness Day

Sword Swallowers Association News

President Proclaims “Sword Swallower’s Day”

Sword Swallowers celebrate worldwide by swallowing together!

HARTSELLE, AL -- On Thursday, February 28, 2008, Sword Swallowers around the world will celebrate "International Sword Swallower's Awareness Day" by doing what they do best - Swallowing swords!

Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI) President Dan Meyer proclaimed February 28th, 2008 as "International Sword Swallower's Day" to raise awareness of sword swallowers around the world.

Sponsored by SSAI, “International Sword Swallower’s Awareness Day” has been set for February 28th in conjunction with February as “National Swallowing Disorders Month” to highlight the contributions sword swallowers have made over the years in the fields of medicine and science, to honor veteran sword swallowers, and to preserve and promote the ancient art form that is still being carried on by a few dozen surviving practitioners of the art.

This year, mayors, governors, and other governing bodies around the world are requested to issue proclamations declaring February 28, 2008 as "International Sword Swallower's Awareness Day", with SSAI encouraging sword swallowers around the world to participate in activities and demonstrations by swallowing swords for medical facilities and the media throughout the day.

“We sword swallowers have been risking our lives to perform the ancient art of sword swallowing for over 4000 years, but many people don't believe sword swallowing is real, or they think that the art has died out," Meyer explained. "We are using this day to honor veteran sword swallowers for their contributions to the art, to raise awareness of the medical contributions that sword swallowers have made in the fields of medicine and science, and to correct myths and misconceptions about the art by performing for medical facilities and the media on this day all around the world.”

Since some sword swallowers perform charitable work for the medical community as a way of raising awareness for esophageal cancer, dysphagia, GERD, and other upper gastro-intestinal and swallowing disorders, the Sword Swallowers Association International adopted “Sword Swallower's Awareness Day” as a way of promoting the ancient art of sword swallowing by performing medical demonstrations at hospitals, medical centers, orphanages, and nursing homes for those who would have difficulty getting to theaters to see live performances.

“The sword swallowers who participate in these activities find them rewarding experiences,” explains Meyer. “On February 28th, many people will have the rare opportunity to see sword swallowing firsthand who would otherwise not have a chance to witness it."

The roots of sword swallowing date back over 4000 years, but the contributions sword swallowers have made to medical science have gone largely unrecognized over the past 140 years. In 1868, a sword swallower was enlisted by Dr. Adolf Kussmaul in Freiburg Germany to undergo the first rigid endoscopy, and in 1906 a sword swallower was used for the first esophageal electrocardiogram in Wales. Other sword swallowers have been prodded and examined by doctors and medical colleges over the years but without formal recognition.

A hundred years later in 2006, the British Medical Journal published the first international medical study "Sword Swallowing and its side effects" co-authored by Meyer and Dr. Brian Witcombe based on a year-long study of sword swallowers around the world. The article won its authors the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine at Harvard University. The authors will appear on the 2008 UK Ig Nobel Tour in March at Oxford University, Imperial College, the BBC, and other venues in the UK in conjunction with National Science and Engineering Week, sponsored by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Many of us have been sword swallowing for years, and we love what we do,” explains Meyer, a Ripley’s and multiple Guinness World Record holder. “Sword Swallowers Day is a great opportunity for us to show the medical community and the rest of the world what we do!”

Sword swallowers will be performing around the world on February 28th, with some setting individual and small group records. Immediately after International Sword Swallower's Awareness Day, sword swallowers will be asked to submit a report of their activities to the Sword Swallowers Association for review and consideration for a group record. "Usually most of us perform individually," Meyer says. "International Sword Swallower's Day gives us a chance to all work together to be part of something much bigger."

The art of sword swallowing began over 4000 years ago in India, and requires the practitioner to use mind-over-matter techniques to control the body and repress natural reflexes in order to insert solid steel blades from 15 to 25 inches down the esophagus and into the stomach. With the demise of the traveling circus sideshow over the past several decades, there are currently less than a few dozen full-time professional sword swallowers actively performing the ancient but deadly art of sword swallowing around the world today.

Sword Swallowers Association International was founded in 2001 to preserve the ancient art of sword swallowing, and is comprised of sword swallowers from around the world, with a sister site with general information on sword swallowing for the common public at Contact us for additional information on “International Sword Swallowers Day” or to schedule a local sword swallower for medical demonstrations, interviews, and other events in your area for Sword Swallowers Day on February 28, 2008, or the Ig Nobel Tour of the UK March 6-15, 2008.

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Media Contact:
Dan Meyer
President and Executive Director
Sword Swallowers Association Int'l
+1 (615) 969.2568 (GMT -6:00 Central Time) (SSAI) (General Info) (Sword Swallowers Day)

Dan's Mailing List and Show Schedule