diseases and remedies of the 1800s

This quote by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), English philosopher, essayist, and statesman, often rang true in the 19th Century.

This quote by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), English philosopher, essayist, and statesman, often proved true of those poor souls who were unfortunate enough to pick up a tummy bug or a fever during the 19th century.

A novel side-track on the road to researching my family tree is the amazing first person information I have found. Letters and journals which give a personal narrative of the social and cultural world my ancestors inhabited. I believe it’s called Historiography – studying the social history on a personal level rather than on abstract and analytical circumstances.

If you have read my blog you will know a bit about my 3 times-great-grandfather George WELLINGTON and his large family who lived in Somerset between 1780 and 1850. I have written about sad letters George wrote to his daughter in 1840 which give an insight into his family life. I am also sharing his daughter Susanah’s journal entries and examining the social and cultural aspects of her life from her diary.

TRADE_Apothecary_01

Given George WELLINGTON’s profession as an apothecary and druggist and his knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and inorganic elements, you would think he and his family might have had a life expectancy over and above the national average. You’d be mistaken.

The last article I posted, susanah’s journal – births, deaths and marriages, got me thinking that maybe George’s profession was not so beneficial to the health and well-being of his family.

  1. Was the frequency that George Wellington come in contact with sick people a risk to his health and the health of other members of his family.
  2. Were the remedies doctors and druggists prescribed to their patients in 1833 worse than the diseases they were treating?

George WELLINGTON and his first wife Elizabeth EDWARDS had eight children: two died soon after birth; four died aged between 29 and 36 years; Elizabeth EDWARDS died giving birth at the age of 43 years. George and his second wife Elizabeth SAMSON had eleven children: three died as infants; and one died at the age of 18 years. Was a 25% infant mortality-rate normal for the time?

There were some very serious diseases floating around in the early 19th Century. Smallpox was beginning to be controlled by the new practice of vaccination. But, outbreaks of influenza, measles, scarlet fever, typhus and whooping cough still regularly took the lives of tens of thousands people – young and old.

In the 1830s and 1840s there were three massive waves of contagious disease. The first, from 1831 to 1833, included two influenza epidemics and the first appearance of cholera which spread from India up through Europe to the British Isles and through trade routes to the rest of the world. Before it ran its course the disease had claimed over 52,000 lives. The second and third waves brought rolling epidemics of typhus, influenza, smallpox and scarlet fever in 1837-38 and 1846-47.

L0006579 Engraving: 'Monster Soup..." by William

A woman drops her teacup upon seeing the monsters swimming around in a drop of Thames water. During the 19th century, sewage and waste contaminated the rivers, making them a prime source of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Etching by William Heath, London, 1828. [www.wellcome.ac.uk]

Cholera was spread by contaminated water, so it affected mainly the poorer and crowded neighbourhoods where public water sources were easily fouled with effluent. Influenza had no economic or social barriers and was spread through close contact with those already infected. A steady stream of coughing and sneezing customers seeking a remedy from their local chemist might increase the spread of infection to other members of his family. But a large family group socialising with their neighbours and gathering in church each week is just as likely to lead to contact with these serious diseases.

Three of the WELLINGTON children who died as infants may have contracted whooping cough, measles typhus or influenza. A solid dose of the flu would undoubtedly kill a small child if left untreated. It is the most probable cause of death of Alexander Samson WELLINGTON who was laid to rest on 10 May 1833 aged just 1 year and 8 months.

The symptoms of the influenza are set out in a pamphlet entitled Rules for the Successful Treatment and Prevention of the Influenza the Prevailing Epidemic which I found in the Wellcome Trust’s online library. In 1833, doctors could not agree on how people contracted the disease, but opinion was that it was propagated by an air-borne contagion.

Some of the symptoms are listed as follows:

The disease commences with the usual symptoms of the common cold, in conjunction with others that are distressing to the patient and alarming to the physician; such as great languor, lowness and oppression, anxiety, with frequent sighing, and violent headache. The pulse is peculiarly quick and irregular, and at night there is often delirium. Sometimes there are severe muscular pains, both general and local.

 The pamphlet goes on to describe the best way to treat the disease:

… our principle object is to clear out the bowels, to promote a determination to the surface of the body, to support the strength of the patient, and to alleviate the hoarseness, cough and oppression at the chest which usually accompanies this complaint.

Extract from a pamphlet on treatments for influenza in 1833 [wellcomecollection.org]

Detail from a pamphlet on treatments for influenza in 1833. Many of the ingredients are quite toxic to humans.  [wellcomecollection.org]

Ingredients such as acetate of ammonia and powdered rhubarb are purgatives which will bring on diarrhea. Sweet spirits of nitre or nitric acid is a highly corrosive mineral acid. Camphor when applied to the skin acts as a vapour rub and as a steam vapour can be beneficial, but if taken orally is poisonous in large doses. Calomel is mercury chloride, which when taken internally is a laxative and disinfectant. Calomel was an ingredient in teething powders in Britain until 1950 and caused widespread mercury poisoning in infants. It was also widely used until the early 20th century to treat syphillis, and was administered to patients in such toxic quantities that their hair and teeth fell out.

If flu symptoms persisted and signs of inflammation of the lungs showed themselves, it was recommended that a course of four or five leeches, or a blister be applied to the chest to relieve the oversupply of blood in the body; bearing in mind to keep the bowels completely open. These don’t seem to me to be treatments designed to support the strength of a patient already weak with infection and fever; and who is now suffering from dehydration, a serious case of diarrhea and mild anemia.

Sick Infants and toddlers did not really stand a chance. They were treated with syrup of squills, an extract from a bulb that grows in the mediterranean area. It was prescribed to babies with whooping cough and croup to induce vomiting. In order to prevent too much inflammation to the stomach, it was frequently combined with a potion of opium or syrup of poppies. Opium was the universal pain-killer of the early nineteenth century. It was used as readily as we use aspirin or ibuprofen today. 

I’m starting to see how disease made such an impact on the lives of families living in the early 1800s. In his book The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Bruce Haley sites:

A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Gt. Britain, by Edwin Chadwick included figures to show that in 1839 for every person who died of old age or violence, eight died of specific diseases. This helps explain why during the second and third decades of the 19th century nearly one infant in three in England failed to reach the age of five. Taken together, measles and whooping cough accounted for 50,000 deaths in England and Wales between 1838 and 1840, and about a quarter of all deaths during this general period have been attributed to tuberculosis or consumption.

The statistics now add up. I am not surprised that only nine of the nineteen WELLINGTON children born between 1799 and 1840 survived into their 50s, 60s and 70s. Five children died as infants; a daughter Mary died aged 33 during child birth; the eldest son George died of heart disease at 36; his brother William died of consumption aged 36; Sophia aged 29 and Susanah aged 18 also died of consumption or pulmonary tuberculosis.

It may be said the accepted medical treatments prescribed by doctors and druggists in the 1800s were harsh and often hurried patients to their deaths. The secret to living through this era was “being strong enough to survive the disease and the remedy”.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sources: The Victorian WebThe Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Bruce Haley; you can view a PDF of the Rules for the Treatment and Prevention of the Influenza pamphlet as well as other library resources and images at the Wellcome Trust websiteSusanah Wellington’s Journal, BUCK family collection. You can read more about it here: susanah’s journal – somerset to sydney.

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6 thoughts on “diseases and remedies of the 1800s

  1. Pingback: susanah’s journal – mottos | branches of our family

  2. Pingback: susanah’s journal – eclipse of the sun | branches of our family

  3. Pingback: oxalic acid poisoning – 1835 | branches of our family

  4. Pingback: susanah’s journal – 51 leeches | branches of our family

  5. Hi, Susan.
    I am quite impressed with your research into diseases and their treatments. I am preparing a class for a course at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy in January 2017 and would like to use a direct quote from your blog on the consequences of some of the “treatments” for influenza. Of course I would give you full credit with your blog address on the powerpoint page. Please let me know if you are OK with this. Thank you for considering it.
    Jean Wilcox Hibben, PhD, CG

  6. Food for thought. I have a Spanish paper to prepare regarding cures and remedies for common ailments……..

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