1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 32

“Wait here,” the man said before closing and locking the door.

A few minutes later Peter turned up. “I hope it’s important,” he said by way of greeting. “I’m losing money just talking to you.”

“Your sister came round to the laboratory with a message . . .”

“Katarina’s okay?” Peter demanded.

Johann held up his hands. “She’s okay. She asked me to pass on the message that Elisabeth Brotbeck died an hour ago.”

“Brotbeck?” Peter looked skyward as he repeated the name a couple of times. Then suddenly he looked back at Johann. “Yes!” he said as he shot a fisted hand into the air. “I have to tell Professor Bauhin this.” Peter pushed past the door guard and disappeared into the darkened building.

Johann followed, ignoring the half-hearted protest of the man at the door. “What’s so important about someone dying?” he asked once he caught up with Peter.

Peter shot a glance at Johann. “Professor Bauhin needs bodies for his anatomy course,” he said.

Johann nodded. He knew that. “But I thought you already had as many bodies as he needed.”

“We do, but Elisabeth Brotbeck was with child.” Peter smiled smugly. “Professor Bauhin will pay well for such a cadaver. Wait here,” he said when they arrived at the curtained off entrance to the anatomy theater.

Johann twitched the curtain aside so he could watch Peter. First he slipped up beside one of Professor Bauhin’s assistants, and talked to him, and then the assistant attracted the attention of the older man leading the dissection. A few words were exchanged before the older man made his apologies to the audience and left an older assistant in charge while he followed Peter back behind the curtain.

“The woman still carries the child?” Professor Bauhin asked Peter the moment they were behind the curtain.

“Frau Brotbeck was over three months pregnant, Professor Bauhin. My sister would have said if she’d lost the child.”

Professor Bauhin licked his lips. He paused for a few seconds before nodding vigorously. “It’ll have to be a private demonstration,” he muttered aloud. “Stay here a moment while I get Jean,” he told Peter before disappearing through the curtain.

Less than a minute later Professor Bauhin returned with his son. “Jean, I want you to go with Peter to check out the body. You know what to look for?”

“That the body still contains the unborn child,” Jean said.

Professor Bauhin nodded. “Now, don’t pay too much for the body,” he said as he handed Jean a purse.


The three of them stepped out of the chilly dead room attached to St Ulrich’s Church and into the sunlight. Peter turned to Jean. “Do you think your father and Dr. Gribbleflotz could determine what killed her?”

“Of course,” Jean said. “Why do you want to know?”

“There’s no of course about it. Your father and Dr. Gribbleflotz were unable to work out how Hans the Boatman died.”

“That’s hardly fair,” Jean protested. “When Dr. Gribbleflotz failed to find river water in his lungs it opened a whole world of possibilities.”

Johann hurried ahead a few paces and turned to face his companions. “Hold it. Who’s Hans the Boatman, and what’s so important about water in his lungs?”

Peter and Jean stopped, and Peter took a deep breath. “Hans the Boatman was the cadaver Dr. Gribbleflotz dissected in his anatomy course back in December.”

“His body had been pulled out of the Rhine, so everyone assumed he’d fallen into the river and drowned,” Jean said.

“Except there was no water in his lungs, so Dr. Gribbleflotz and Jean’s father thought he must have been dead before he hit the water,” Peter said. “And over the next three days they failed to determine how he died.”

“Hans’ body had been in the river for several days before it was discovered, so a lot of the important clues were lost,” Jean said. He waved back towards St Ulrich’s. “Frau Brotbeck’s body is so fresh it’s still warm, so the clues should still be there.”

“Why are you so interested in how the woman died?” Johann asked.

“The families like to know,” Peter answered.

A week later

Johann was enjoying walking around with a delightful companion on his arm when he noticed Peter accepting money from a couple of guys. He turned to Katarina. “What sort of thing would Peter do for guys like those two?” he asked.

Katarina looked in the direction Johann was indicating and snorted. “He’s not getting paid for any work he might have done, he’s collecting his winnings.”

“Peter gambles?” Johann asked. That didn’t fit his image of the youth. He seemed too concerned with money to risk losing any on a game of chance.

“Only on sure things,” Katarina muttered. She looked at her brother for a few seconds more before tugging at Johann’s arm. “Let’s keep moving. I need to get some ribbon for Maria.”

Maria was Katarina’s mistress, and Johann had the impression they were good friends for all that Katarina was her maid. He let her lead him away from Peter, only glancing back once, to see Peter collecting money from someone else. “What kind of sure things?” he asked.

“The latest was that Dr. Gribbleflotz and Professor Bauhin would be able to determine what killed Elisabeth Brotbeck.”

“What kind of sick individual bets on things like that?” Johann muttered.

“Sick people like my brother and his friends,” Katarina said. “Look, there. They have ribbon just the right color for Maria’s wedding dress.” She tightened her grip on Johann’s hand and surged through the crowd.

Johann let himself be dragged along. Visiting haberdashery shops was part of the price of walking out with Katarina, but her company more than made up for any embarrassment he might have felt being seen in such a store.

Early April, 1623

Phillip emptied the maggots into the large glass bowl of warm water and gently swished them around. A quick glance Johann’s way caught him watching what he was doing. “Shouldn’t you be watching your retorts?” Phillip asked.

Johann nodded guiltily, but continued to stare at the bowl in front of Phillip. “What’re you doing?” he asked.

“Do you remember we talked once about ‘maggot therapy’?” Phillip asked.

Johann nodded. “You said that maggot therapy was surgical, and that if I wanted to learn about surgery, I should enroll at the university.”

“That’s true. However, what I’m doing now is more iatrochemical than surgical. While I was serving in the Low Countries I noticed that in patients having their wounds treated with maggots the wounds became flooded with a clear . . .”

“Treated with maggots?” Johann’s voice was high pitched. “What are you treating with maggots?”

“Battle wounds,” Phillip said. “While I was serving as a military surgeon and physician, I discovered, like many military surgeons and physicians before me, that soldiers who have been left for days on the battlefield with fly blown wounds often had a better chance of surviving than soldiers who receive timely treatment from a surgeon or physician.

“Well, if you were to inspect a wound that is full of maggots, you would see that they are immersed in a clear, thick, liquid. I looked at that clear liquid, and wondered at its properties.”

“What properties?” Johann asked.

“Well, why is it that maggots can live in rotten flesh?” Phillip asked. “Could it be because they live in a liquid that somehow protects them?

“Naturally, I conducted some tests,” Philip said.

“Of course you did,” Johann muttered.

Phillip ignored Johann’s muttered comment and continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “I discovered that the liquor, when introduced into a wound not being treated with maggots, healed a lot faster than ones where it was not used. So I hypothesized that there was something in the liquor that is medically beneficial.” Phillip carefully siphoned off the slime from the surface of the water and poured it into an apothecary’s mixing bowl. “I now use it in my special wound ointment.”

Johann pointed to the maggots still struggling in the bowl of water. “What do you do with the maggots after washing off the slime?”

Phillip smiled. “You will now fish them out of the water and destructively distill them to produce the Quinta Essentia of maggots.”

Johann reluctantly collected the maggots and loaded them into retorts before setting them over the furnace. It wasn’t long before the Quinta Essentia of the maggots was dripping into the collection vessels.

“What do you want me to do with the remnants?” Johann asked sometime later as he removed the first of the spent retorts form the furnace.

“Empty the powder into a jar and seal it for later. I’ve got some fresh Quinta Essentia of the Waters of Wine due to mature in three months’ time, and I’ll see what I can extract from the remnants . . .” Phillip stopped speaking to listen. Yes, he had heard the clatter of wooden shoes on cobblestones coming down the street. He didn’t have much of a medical practice, preferring to work in his laboratory rather than treat patients, but he was on call for the guard. Maybe one of them had injured themselves. He just hoped it wasn’t Leonard Stohler again.

The footfalls slowed just outside, and then the door burst open.