5 interesting facts about Lewis Carroll

by Laura Geggel

Alice fell down the famous rabbit hole 150 years ago, after family friend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll) told the story to the Liddell sisters on a boat trip down the Thames on July 4, 1862.

Ten-year-old Alice Liddell, delighted by the tale, asked him for a written copy of the story. The rest is history. Carroll published the adventures in 1865, and the book hasn’t gone out of print since.

Here are five odd facts about Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), including his enthusiasm for word games, microscopes and photography.

1. Animal inspiration

“Alice in Wonderland” is chock-full of animals, including the Cheshire cat, flamingos that serve as croquet mallets and a baby that turns into a pig. Many of the animals were anthropomorphized versions of people that Alice and her sisters knew, said Carolyn Vega, assistant curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

In one Wonderland scene, Alice runs a race in circles with a dodo and a flock of other birds and animals. The dodo is supposed to be Carroll, whom everyone knew as Mr. Dodgson. He had a stammer, and sometimes haltingly introduced himself as “Dodo-Dodgson,” said Vega, who researched the book for the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibit, “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland,” which runs until Oct. 11.

Carroll frequently visited the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and likely noticed a dodo skeleton and painting on display at the museum, Vega said. Scholars speculate that this dodo inspired him when he was writing and illustrating the book.

Alice’s sisters, Lorina and Edith, are also in the race scene as a lorry and an eaglet. Robinson Duckworth, who accompanied Carroll and the girls on the boat trip, is included in the story as his namesake — a duck.

2. Microscope maven

Carroll used the microscope to look at amoebas, other protozoa and insect larvae, according to the Morgan’s exhibit.

In a letter to his sister Elizabeth, he wrote, “This is a most interesting sight, as the creatures are most conveniently transparent, and you see all kinds of organs jumping about like a complicated piece of machinery … Everything goes on at railway speed, so I suppose they must be some of those insects that only live a day or two, and try to make the most of it.”Just like modern early technology adopters, Carroll bought the latest microscope of his day. The microscope, manufactured in 1859 by Smith & Beck of London, was “something that he had for his whole life and took incredible care of,” Vega told Live Science.

Making a connection to the railway wasn’t surprising for a Victorian.

“This is during the exact boon of the railway expansion across Britain,” Vega said. Just as people compare concepts today to computers, people in the mid-1800s compared ideas to railroads, which was cutting-edge technology at the time, she said.

3. Word and logic games

Wonderland may be an absurd place, but it’s surprisingly logical at times. Perhaps that’s because Carroll, who taught mathematics for 26 years at Christ Church at the University of Oxford, infused logic into his writing and games.

In “Syzygies,” a game Carroll created, players change letters in one word to make another.

4. Literary breakthrough

Many children’s books in the 1800s taught morals or lessons. Not Alice.

“It’s not that Alice isn’t a good role model and inspiring, and it’s not that she doesn’t behave morally and ethically,” Vega said. “But it doesn’t conclude with a didactic statement.”

Carroll makes fun of moralistic poetry, and his parodies are sprinkled throughout the book. For instance, the poem, “You are old, Father William” spoofs the poet Robert Southey’s, “The Old Man’s Comforts, and How He Gained Them,” writing about a silly, instead of a sage old man imparting wisdom to a youth.

After reading “Wonderland,” the English artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote a letter to Carroll, saying that the Father William ballad was “among the funniest things I have seen for a long while.”

Carroll’s writings helped set the stage for later children’s books, especially novels that were meant to entertain and delight children, instead of pedantically review lessons, Vega said.

5. Questionable photography

Carroll took about 3,000 photos during his lifetime. He began his hobby by snapping shots of landscapes and cathedrals but later focused on portraits and scientific specimens, Vega said.

Some of his photos give modern scholars pause. In two photos framed side by side that he gave to the Liddell family, he used Alice as a model to show the contrast of her dressed in Victorian finery next to a photo of her dressed as a beggar child. The beggar photo looks suggestive, with her tattered dress falling off her shoulders.

“It’s unavoidable and true that this photograph, in particular, has led to decades of speculation about Carroll’s true feelings for Alice,” Vega said.

In 1863, his relations with the Liddell family cooled, but it’s not clear why; one of his relatives removed the pages of Carroll’s journal from that time period, Vega said.

Carroll also took several nude photos of children, but these were taken with parental permission, Vega said. Though it seems odd by today’s standards, it wasn’t uncommon during the mid-1800s.

“Victorians considered children to be symbols of pure innocence, and being around them was to be a little closer to grace,” Vega said. “That is, the symbol of the nude child in art had a different place in the Victorian world than it does today.”

However, researchers found other incriminatory evidence against Carroll. The BBC program “The Secret World of Lewis Carroll,” which aired in January, reviews a photo found in a French museum that experts credit to Carroll. In the photo, Alice’s sister Lorina poses nude in a suggestive posture. What’s more, Alice’s descendants have heard rumors of his peculiar relationship with the girls.

“My understanding is that he was in love with Alice, but he was so repressed that he never would have transgressed any boundaries,” Vanessa Tait, the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, told The Telegraph.

Carroll was a “strange man, but an admirable one, and I don’t want to tar him with accusations of pedophilia, which we’re all so obsessed with now,” Tait told The Telegraph. “It’s sad that that’s the thing everyone is going to want to know, especially in the year of the anniversary of the book.”


7 Very Bizarre (and Very Rare) Psychotic Hallucinations


The many documented cases of strange delusions and neurological syndromes can offer a window into how bizarre the brain can be.

It may seem that hallucinations are random images that appear to some individuals, or that delusions are thoughts that arise without purpose. However, in some cases, a specific brain pathway may create a particular image or delusion, and different people may experience the same hallucination.

In recent decades, with advances in brain science, researchers have started to unravel the causes of some of these conditions, while others have remained a mystery.

Here is a look at seven odd hallucinations, which show that anything is possible when the brain takes a break from reality.

1. Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome
This neurological syndrome is characterized by bizarre, distorted perceptions of time and space, similar to what Alice experienced in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Patients with Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome describe seeing objects or parts of their bodies as smaller or bigger than their actual sizes, or in an altered shape. These individuals may also perceive time differently.

The rare syndrome seems to be caused by some viral infections, epilepsy, migraine headaches and brain tumors. Studies have also suggested that abnormal activity in parts of the visual cortex that handle information about the shape and size of objects might cause the hallucinations.

It’s also been suggested that Carroll himself experienced the condition during migraine headaches and used them as inspiration for writing the tale of Alice’s strange dream.

English psychiatrist John Todd first described the condition in an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1955, and that’s why the condition is also called Todd’s syndrome. However, an earlier reference to the condition appears in a 1952 article by American neurologist Caro Lippman. The doctor describes a patient who reported feeling short and wide as she walked, and referenced “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to explain her body image illusions.

2. Walking Corpse Syndrome
This delusion, also called Cotard’s Syndrome, is a rare mental illness in which patients believe they are dead, are dying or have lost their internal organs.

French neurologist Jules Cotard first described the condition in 1880, finding it in a woman who had depression and also symptoms of psychosis. The patient believed she didn’t have a brain or intestines, and didn’t need to eat. She died of starvation.

Other cases of Cotard’s syndrome have been reported in people with a range of psychiatric and neurological problems, including schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury and multiple sclerosis.

In a recent case report of Cotard’s syndrome, researchers described a previously healthy 73-year-old woman who went to the emergency room insisting that she was “going to die and going to hell.” Eventually, doctors found the patient had bleeding in her brain due to a stroke. After she received treatment in the hospital, her delusion resolved within a week, according to the report published in January 2014 in the journal of Neuropsychiatry.

3. Charles Bonnet syndrome
People who have lost their sight may develop Charles Bonnet syndrome, which involves having vivid, complex visual hallucinations of things that aren’t really there.

People with this syndrome usually hallucinate people’s faces, cartoons, colored patterns and objects. It is thought the condition occurs because the brain’s visual system is no longer receiving visual information from the eye or part of the retina, and begins making up its own images.

Charles Bonnet syndrome occurs in between 10 and 40% of older adults who have significant vision loss, according to studies.

4. Clinical lycanthropy
In this extremely rare psychiatric condition, patients believe they are turning into wolves or other animals. They may perceive their own bodies differently, and insist they are growing the fur, sharp teeth and claws of a wolf.

Cases have also been reported of people with delusional beliefs about turning into dogs, pigs, frogs and snakes.

The condition usually occurs in combination with another disorder, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression, according to a review study published in the March issue of the journal History of Psychiatry in 2014.

5. Capgras delusion
Patients with Capgras delusion believe that an imposter has replaced a person they feel close to, such as a friend or spouse. The delusion has been reported in patients with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, advanced Parkinson’s disease, dementia and brain lesions.

One brain imaging study suggested the condition may involve reduced neural activity in the brain system that processes information about faces and emotional responses.

6. Othello syndrome
Named after Shakespeare’s character, Othello syndrome involves a paranoid belief that the sufferer’s partner is cheating. People with this condition experience strong obsessive thoughts and may show aggression and violence.

In one recent case report, doctors described a 46-year-old married man in the African country Burkina Faso who had a stroke, which left him unable to communicate and paralyzed in half of his body. The patient gradually recovered from his paralysis and speaking problems, but developed a persistent delusional jealousy and aggression toward his wife, accusing her of cheating with an unidentified man.

7. Ekbom’s syndrome
Patients with Ekbom’s syndrome, also known as delusional parasitosis or delusional infestations, strongly believe they are infested with parasites that are crawling under their skin. Patients report sensations of itching and being bitten, and sometimes, in an effort to get rid of the pathogens, they may hurt themselves, which can result in wounds and actual infections.

It’s unknown what causes these delusions, but studies have linked the condition with structural changes in the brain, and some patients have improved when treated with antipsychotic medications.