Historical Medicine: Ann Shorey

I’m pleased to have Ann Shorey back with us today as she discusses some uniquie aspects of 19th century medicine with a fun quiz. Do you know the answers? Don’t fear, they’re posted.

Welcome back, Ann!

As people of the 21st Century, we’re accustomed to hearing about advanced medical tests, such as an MRI or a CAT scan, even though we may hope we never need the technology. We think of blood tests, urine samples, even DNA testing, as the norm.
But if we lived in the same time and place as the characters in my At Home in Beldon Grove series, none of those advances would be available. The series begins in 1838 with The Edge of Light and concludes in 1857 with The Dawn of a Dream. The “middle child” in the series, The Promise of Morning, is set in 1846.
Here are a few medical questions that arise in the series. The answers appear at the end of the post.
1.      Dr. Karl Spengler is a continuing character throughout the Beldon Grove series. Try to put yourself in his place when faced with a diagnosis of cholera. What was a popular treatment of the day?
2.      What was common therapy for a croupy baby?
3.      How would a doctor have cared for a serious injury to an eye?
4.      When faced with a listless infant who wouldn’t eat and whose limbs lacked any strength, what would the doctor’s diagnosis have been? And if he’d known what was wrong, would he have recognized the cause?
5.      What were the signs of acute heart failure, and with what medication would the patient have been treated? For that matter, what did the medical community call heart failure?
Here are the answers. Some were gleaned from family accounts written at the time, others from research.
1.      Cholera was commonly treated with heavy doses of calomel (mercurous chloride), which we know now is poisonous, and bloodletting via leeches or cutting. Your chances of survival were better without the treatment.
2.       A croupy baby would have had to endure a piece of flannel saturated with turpentine wrapped around its throat.
3.      For an injury to an eye, a poultice of slippery elm bark was placed on the wound. Then the head was wrapped in a bandage and the patient was made to lie flat until healing took place.
4.      The doctor would have had no idea what was wrong with the infant. Only until many years later would it be known as infant botulism, one cause being feeding honey to babies under one year of age.
5.      The signs of acute heart failure haven’t changed (shortness of breath, fluid retention), although diagnosis and treatment are much more sophisticated today. In the mid-1800’s,  the condition may have been treated with a carefully monitored digitalis decoction. In that sense, the medication was the same, although today’s compounds are far safer.
At that time the condition would possibly have been called edema of the lungs, or dropsy. The term “heart failure” wasn’t commonly used until 1895, and “heart attack” came into our vocabulary in the 1930’s.
Makes be glad to be living now. The good old days weren’t all that good, at least not if you or someone you loved was sick!
ANN SHOREY has been a full-time writer for over twenty years. Her writing has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Grandma’s Soul, and in the Adams Media Cup of Comfort series. She made her fiction debut with The Edge of Light, Book One in the At Home in Beldon Grove series. She’s tempted to thank Peet’s coffee and Dove chocolates when she writes the acknowledgments for her books.
 She may be contacted through her website, www.annshorey.com, which also contains her blog, http://annshorey.blogspot.com/ or find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/AnnShorey.

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