“The glutton is much more than an animal and much less than a Man” – Honore de Balzac
The above-mentioned quote of the famous 19th century, French novelist and playwright, portrayed the thoughts of many people, that they have about an excessively greedy eater. Just a year before Honore de Balzac was born, a Frenchman showman and soldier died, who could surely be considered as the world’s greatest glutton, in the history of mankind. However, the unfortunate man ate, not because of his greed but for his constant hunger, which, may have been linked to some underlying pathological health condition.
Tarrare, was cursed with bad luck from his time of birth in rural France in the year 1772. From his early childhood, he had a hunger, which was difficult to quench. By the time he reached his teenage years, he could eat cattle meat equal to his weight, in a single day. Frustrated by his constant demand for food, his parents kicked him out of the house.
Forced to join a group of prostitutes and thieves, for his sustenance, he stole and begged for food. Sometime later, he started appearing in street shows, where he would thrill the onlookers, with his unbelievable eating skills. This left the spectators amazed, when he ate – cork, stones and basketful of apples. He also indulged in eating – live animals & snake meat was his favourite food.
In spite of his diet, Tarrare's growth was not at all impressive. He was only of 45 kg in weight and of average height by the time, he was 17 years old. However, his mouth was very wide, with small lips and stained teeth. Although his midriff would swell up like a balloon, soon after eating; but in empty stomach, the skin of his abdomen would hang loosely downwards. Similarly, the skin of his cheeks, were also very lax and in normal condition would be hanging down. However, at the time of eating, this lax skin would allow the cheek to distend enough to hold a dozen apples or eggs, at one go.
The high rate of metabolism in his body, caused his skin temperature to be raised, and he also sweated profusely, which caused a profusely stinking body odour, perceptible up to 20 paces away. After eating, his body odour would get worse & his face would take on a grotesque appearance, due to his bloodshot cheeks & eyes. Rise of visible vapour from his body in such situation, combined with frequent noisy belching in an individual with unusually soft fair hair, were sufficient reason for drawing unwanted attention, of any person who happened to be in close proximity to him.
He ate a huge amount of food (unconventional variety included), but showed no signs of increase in body weight, nor was there any associated vomiting. The frequently occurring extremely foul smelling, loose motions were the only abnormality, that he demonstrated. In spite of his tremendous diet intake & perceptible physical difference, Tarrare did not demonstrate any sign or symptoms of mental illness.
In the last decade of 18th century, France got involved in war against other European powers, which later would be known as the war of the first coalition. The war efforts demanded, an increase in the strength of the army & Tarrare joined the military, hoping for a better life. Here he would carry out odd jobs for other soldiers, in return for a share of their food (which he ate, in addition to his own rations). It was during this period that he was forced to get admitted in hospital, with complains of extreme exhaustion. The sympathetic doctors increased his diet to more than 4 times, but he still complained of hunger. His desperation drove him to hunt for food in waste disposal areas and gutters.
The doctors of the hospital decided to study his condition, which they suspected of hiding some inner disease. To understand his eating abilities, he was given access to different quantity & quality of food. The observations that followed, startled the surgeons & other doctors even more. In one occasion, he alone ate the meal prepared for 15 workers, all by himself.
Once he was also offered a living cat, by the authorities. Tarrare used his teeth to cut open the abdomen of the animal, to drink its blood, following which he ate the entire animal, except its bone. The skin and fur which he had eaten were later vomited out. It is quite obvious that the sight would have been quite repulsive. However, the doctors in the hospital, were not yet satisfied & tried more radical experimenting with his diet. Soon snakes, lizards & younger dogs were added to the list of the animals, which Tarrare was able to eat successfully. This monstrosity reached its peak, when Tarrare successfully was able to swallow an entire eel fish, without chewing.
By this time, Tarrare’s eating prowess was known to many people in the French Army. General Alexandre de Beauharnais was one such individual. One of the doctors, studying the abnormal behaviour of Tarrare - Dr Courville, had demonstrated to the General, how Tarrare could swallow a wooden box containing a document & the same document was retrieved along with the box, from his stool 2 days later, with the writings still readable. As a gesture of appreciation for his accomplishment, he was rewarded with raw liver and lungs, weighing 14 kg, of a bull, which he ate up in no time.
The General thought of using this extraordinary ability of Tarrare as a spy for his country. He was again fed a similar box, containing classified documents, meant for delivery to a Colonel present behind enemy lines. However, Tarrare was caught by the enemies, after he had crossed the border in disguise, in darkness of the night. In spite of initial reluctance, Tarrare divulged his mission to his captors, after sometime. Once the box was obtained from his stool, he was beaten up by soldiers of the enemy nation, after cancelling previously decided punishment of hanging. Allowed to go back to France, Tarrare was badly shaken by this incident.
Desperate to get cured & to avoid further service in the French army, he returned to the hospital, where he was undergoing treatment previously. Here he was once again given a variety of experimental treatments; ranging from tincture of Opium, vinegar, tobacco & finally lots of boiled eggs. As these failed to quell his hunger, he continued to search for anything to eat, from source as different as, butcher’s shop to gutters, where he would even fight with stray dogs to eat decaying flesh of dead animals. He also drank discarded blood of patients in hospital & also tried to eat the bodies of dead patients, who died in the hospital. The hospital authorities ran out of their patience, when Tarrare was accused of eating a 14 months old child, who had mysteriously disappeared. He was kicked out of the hospital & remained unseen for the next 4 years.
Four years later he was again admitted to a Versailles hospital, as he was suffering from advanced case of Tuberculosis. He later developed diarrhoea & expired soon after. Keen to know the pathology responsible for Tarrare’s condition a post mortem study was undertaken. The findings were quite remarkable. His oesophagus was very wide and his liver was also excessively large with the consistency greatly altered, as it was in a decaying state. His Gall bladder was also found to be considerably enlarged. The entire abdominal cavity was filled with enormously enlarged stomach, which was filled with ulcers. Pus was also found in many different parts of his body. Tarrare died the way he lived, miserably and bereft of basic human dignity.
Tarrare’s eating disorder had been an enigmatic problem for all the physicians & surgeons of his time. However, the advance of medical science in the modern world, has given rise to many theories, that may have been responsible, for his diseased state. The most important of these is – Hyperthyroidism. This is a condition, in which excessive thyroid hormone is produced by thyroid gland. This can cause many sign & symptoms, that Tarrare suffered from. Some of these are – severe hunger, inability to tolerate hunger & excessive sweating, inability to gain weight & presence of weight loss and presence of fine hair.
Some other experts believe that, a part of brain – called as Amygdala, must have been somehow got damaged in him, causing him to develop extreme hunger. Tarrare unfortunately was never correctly diagnosed and for that reason never received the proper treatment to alleviate his suffering. However, the miserable life & tragic end of Tarrare’s will forever stay etched in human mind, as the man who could eat anything.