Effects of explosions on the ear (1887)

Here’s another blog post inspired, in part, by my work on my upcoming book on Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics

When we discuss our ideal impressions of science, we often imagine repeatedly doing laboratory experiments in which every variable is controlled and the fundamental phenomenon is isolated from all others.  However, in plenty of situations, especially involving biological specimens, such controlled experiments are impractical, impossible, or unethical.

For instance, as discussed in my upcoming book, there is a phenomenon known as “feline high-rise syndrome,” in which cats that fall from higher floors of a skyscraper are seemingly less injured than those falling from lower floors.  Because — thankfully — nobody is deliberately throwing cats out of windows to study how they fall, veterinarians must rely on those accidental fallen cats that are brought in for treatment.

A similar issue arises for unusual injuries in humans, of course.  A particular spectacular — and horrifying — opportunity arose to systematically study one of these in 1886, when an accidental explosion caught ten people in its concussive blast. Here was a grisly chance for an enterprising researcher to learn more about injuries to the ear that are caused by the sounds of artillery explosions.

The arrangement of men at the U.S. Ordinance Proving Ground, Sandy Hook, October 21, 1886. From Sexton’s paper in Science.

The Ordinance Proving Ground at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, was first opened in 1874, as a place to test new weapons that had been developed and introduced during the Civil War.  The coastal land provided a long flat stretch of beach to fire cannon and mortars along, and longer range weapons could be fired directly out to sea. As one might expect, the testing of “unproven” high explosive weaponry was not without risk, as the military men learned on that fateful day in 1886.

I draw the description of the event as given in the October 23, 1886 issue of The Decatur Herald, with its incredibly unsubtle and insensitive headline and details.  Warning for somewhat graphic descriptions.


One Man Literally Torn to Pieces and the Atoms of His Body Scattered in All Directions.

Sandy Hook, N.J., Oct. 22 — A conical mortar shell, weighing 610 pounds and loaded with thirty pounds of powder, exploded at the United States ordinance-testing station at Sandy Hook yesterday afternoon at about half past three o’clock. Lieutenant William M. Metcalf, U.S.A., and Private Joseph King were killed and Superintendant A.G. Sinclair, Sergeant John Abbott and Private Walter Goodno were injured.  The ordinance board have been making tests at The Hook nearly all summer. For the past few days, they have been testing a twelve-inch rifled mortar firing empty shells.  Yesterday afternoon orders were given to load some of the shells which were to have been used ina test to be made this morning. Lieutenant Metcalf was in charge of a party of soldiers who commenced the work shortly after the midday meal. Until recently the loading of the shells has always been done on the ground by civilian workmen, but the failure of Congress to make an appropriation led to the enlisted men being detailed for the duty.

Note the pointed criticism directed at Congress for a failure to allocate funds. Some things have not changed in 133 years.

Just before the explosion Private King, who was active in the work, had placed the thirty pounds of powder in the shell, which was standing on one corner of the platform. All the others were grouped around him, Lieutenant Metcalf standing about four feet away looking on. King stooped over the shell with a plug, which he commenced to screw into the opening, through which the powder had been inserted. As he gave it a final twist to make sure that it had been driven home there was a flash and a deafening report. Those of the group nearest the explosion were hurled in all directions, and when the noise brought the other officers and soldiers to the scene it looked at first as if none of the ill-fated party was alive to tell the tale. Lieutenant Metcalf was lying senseless on his back with the smoke arising from his head from which all the hair had been singed. His face was black with powder and his right leg was torn off and lying several feet away. His left leg was completely shattered, and he gave little sign of life. Private King’s body was blown to atoms and fragments of it, together with burning shreds of his clothing were scattered on all side.

The explosion is believed to have been caused by a few grains of powder remaining in the hole into which King was screwing the plug.

Miraculously, of the ten people present at the event, only Metcalfe and King died.  And because of this, the survivors gave, in essence, a small controlled study of ear injuries from a concussive blast.

This tragedy came to the attention of Dr. Samuel Sexton (1833-1896), one of the leading otologists (ear doctors) of his time. Born in Greene County, Ohio, he earned his medical degree at the University of Louisville in Kentucky in 1856. He opened a medical practice in Cincinnati that same year, but the outbreak of the Civil War changed the course of his career. He entered the army as an assistant surgeon of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, where he served until October of 1862. This suggests that he was present at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, which is noted as the bloodiest day of American history, with 22,717 dead, wounded or missing troops.

The Battle of Antietam, by Kurz & Allison (1878).

After his service, Sexton returned to Cincinnati to continue his practice, but was less successful. His experience on the battlefield, however, seems to have made him recognize that there was an urgent need for specialists in ear injuries, and he moved to New York to become one of the pioneers in this field.  As he himself notes at the beginning of his paper on the Sandy Hook incident*,

That the ear may be injured by the violence of aerial impact, or concussive force, propagated by the explosion of gunpowder, has been known ever since the introduction of explosives in military warfare. Owing, however, to the obscurity of traumatic lesions of the drum of the ear, or of its deeper parts, and the limited means of observation at the command of the military surgeon in the field, it has been more difficult to study these injuries than most other wounds.

It is a fact, moreover, that from the suffering occasioned by other and more painful wounds simultaneously received, together with the bewilderment caused by nervous shock, aural injuries are liable to be entirely overlooked.

But the explosion at Sandy Hook gave a unique opportunity: to study the injuries of people’s ears that were caused by the same explosion, where the position of each man was very precisely known. As Sexton noted,

While the writer was recently seeking information from persons having had experience in this field or on shipboard, especially among army and navy officers, an opportunity quite unexpectedly presented itself to investigate thoroughly the effects of concussive force on the ears of a number of men in the midst of whom a twelve-inch mortar-shell, weighing five hundred and eighty-five pounds, and containing a bursting charge of twenty-seven pounds of rifle-powder, was accidentally exploded.

Every surviving member of the accident remembered where they had been standing when the explosion occurred; in fact, the first image of this blog post is a sketch of a photograph taken after the accident, where all the surviving men went and stood in their original positions. (Stand-ins replaced the three men closest to the shell, on the left of the figure. Two of those, King and Metcalf, were killed, and Goodno was still hospitalized when the photo was taken.)

Sexton’s paper on the subject, “Effects of explosions on the ear,” gives a beautiful and macabre figure showing these precise positions, as shown below.

The key for the individual labels was also provided by Sexton.

I find this paper fascinating because it works, somewhat, like a scientific detective story: deducing the effects of concussive force on the ear by interviewing and studying each of the people at the “scene of the crime.” Interviews were often challenging, though, as Sexton notes:

Soldiers are, however, as a rule, accustomed to endure hardship without complaint, and, in fact, all insensitive persons are liable to overlook ear-disease until incapacitated to perform their work. It was only after persistent inquiries were made that some of these persons would admit that they had suffered any injury of the ear.

Sexton was inspired to try and find more information, and a larger data set, from census data:

I have endeavored to obtain some reliable statistics in regard to the frequency of injuries to the organ of hearing during the late war of the rebellion, but without satisfactory results: thus, the number reported by the census-takers in 1880, as furnished me by Mr. Fred. A. Wines of the census bureau, was only fifteen from all causes… The meagreness of facts obtained in this manner illustrates the inefficiency of such a method for collecting valuable information. A single shell-explosion has, in many instances, doubtlessly injured as great a number.

And, again, part of the problem… is Congress:

The pension-office, doubtless, might furnish more reliable statistics were the disabilities for which pensions were granted tabulated; but congress has, as I am informed by Medical Examiner Wood, omitted to make any appropriation for such work.

The most useful information, therefore, came from Sexton’s study of the Sandy Hook victims.  He wrote a longer paper on their symptoms and outcomes, and included all this in his 1888 book The Ear and Its Diseases, which became an instant classic in the field, in part because there were so few comparably detailed studies. For example, the description of Sergeant John Abbott’s case is given below.

CASE 1.– Seargeant John Abbott, aged 34, was kneeling on right knee and toe when explosion occurred, presenting right ear toward the shell. He was thrown ten feet by the force of the concussion, found himself upon all fours, but got up immediately and ran some thirty feet before looking to see what had happened. Noticed that the right side of chest, shoulder, and face were burned by the blast. As regards his hearing, although there was much talking and shouting, he could hear nothing at first. He was much confused, but had no vertigo or pain in the ears. An hour after the accident, however, the deafness was found to be confined to the right ear. After going to bed, blood was observed on the pillow, and continued to trickle from the right ear for two or three hours, when it ceased. He slept but little. Pain has been experienced in the injured ear on blowing the nose, or swallowing only.

Examination of ears.– Auricles and canals healthy; the latter small.

Right drum-head: A large, irregularly ovoidal perforation of the drum-head exists in the posterior segment; it is bounded anteriorly by the malleus handle, inferiorly by the annulus tendinosus, and above by the membrana flaccida.

An illustration of the damaged drum-head is helpfully provided.

Sexton also considered a bit of the physics of the injuries.  Sound waves, even those produced by massive explosions, include regions of higher and lower pressure, and each of these can have a different impact on the ear. In his paper, Sexton notes the following anecdote, which is in a way a chilling demonstration of how powerful the sounds from artillery can be:

In confirmation of this allegation, the puzzling experience related to me by Captain Shaler may be cited: “The window-glass of the officers’ quarters, at the testing-grounds at Sandy Hook, situated some three to five hundred feet to the westward of the gun park shown in the picture, are liable to be shattered by the concussion of large pieces in practice, and it has been found that the glass is forced outward at one time, and inward at another.”

We tend to think of explosions as outward blasts. However, because sound is a wave, it is a combination of high and low pressure regions, and those low pressure regions can pull inward, just as the high pressure regions can push outward.

Though Sexton’s research on injuries of the ear was apparently scoffed at when he began, he received many accolades later in life. In 1889, the year after publishing his book, he was awarded with the Medal of Honor of Venezuela for his work, and with admission to the rank of the third class of el Busto del Libertador (Order of the Liberator). He was a member of a number of important medical organizations, such as the County Medical Society, the Academy of Medicine, and the Practitioners’ Society.

Sexton’s paper, as a whole, shows how challenging it can be to study certain phenomenon. In this case, injuries to the ear in wartime tend to be the least of anyone’s worries, and so there was little data available to Sexton to properly study them. Though incidents like the one at the Sandy Hook Proving Grounds are tragic, a scientific investigation of them can prove beneficial to many more injured people in the future.


* Samuel Sexton, “Effects of explosions on the ear,” Science 9 (1886), 343-347.

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