Nancy Talbot Clark and her sisters at Western Reserve in the 1850s: pioneers of medical education of American women

On Monday, March 8, Case Daily hosted a trivia quiz in honor of women’s history month. They asked this question: “In 1876, fifty years after it was established, the first woman graduated from Western Reserve College. Who was she?” While they sought the first female graduate of our undergraduate school, it brought to mind a similar question regarding our medical school and its early women graduates. So, I pose a variant of the question appropriate for women’s history month:“Who was the first female graduate of the medical department of Western Reserve College?” The answer is simple: Nancy Talbot Clark. Going beyond, we find that her experience reveals an intriguing, complex, and instructive story about women entering the ranks of the medical profession. Permit me to elaborate.

Nancy-Talbot-Clark-BinneyNancy Talbot Clark graduated in 1852, making her the first female medical graduate of Western Reserve College and the second woman graduate of a co-ed regular (non-sectarian or allopathic) medical college in the entire Unites States. This last point is significant, for the medical establishment of 19th century America discounted the value of medical degrees conferred by sectarian (homeopathic, eclectic, &c) or all female schools. Elizabeth Blackwell merits distinction as the first woman in this country to graduate from a regular (or allopathic) co-educational medical school, having graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849. Clark came next when she matriculated at Western Reserve, and was in turn followed by five more women who graduated before 1856. In that year Dean Delamater, who championed women’s medical education, retired and his successor, and the rest of the all-male faculty, deemed it “inexpedient” to continue admitting women. Decades passed before women again matriculated at Western Reserve.

The rich narrative of Clark’s career shows clearly that the path for women entering medicine was fraught with challenge and frustration. Tragedy, misogyny, and purported moral and social propriety all conspired to thwart what might otherwise have been a promising professional life for Nancy Talbot woman dissectingClark. An early marriage in 1845 to dentist Champion Clark seemingly precluded a career at all, medical or otherwise, for society expected married women to remain at home, not enter the marketplace. At 22 she bore a daughter who died within a year, and then her husband succumbed to typhoid fever in March 1848, leaving her a young widow. How she found her way to Cleveland is unclear, but biographical notes indicate that the wife of Dean Delamater came from nearby Sharon, Massachusetts, Clark’s hometown. Whatever the route, Clark studied for two years, graduating in March 1852. The school took special notice, publishing in the local newspaper that “Among the graduates is Mrs. Nancy E, Clark of Sharon, Mass., a lady who has, during the past two sessions, commanded the respect of Instructors and members of classes by her lady-like deportment and faithful intelligent attention to her duties as a Medical Student.”

pulse-lo-resClark returned to Boston, Massachusetts, where she practiced medicine from April 1852 to August 1854, and tried unsuccessfully to gain admission to the Massachusetts Medical Society. Male members rejected her application, asserting that “their duty requires them to examine male candidates only for membership.” Like Elizabeth Blackwell before her, Clark departed for France with her physician brother. There, she studied and interned at La Maternité the premiere obstetric hospital in the French capital. On the journey over she met the recently-widowed Amos Binney of Boston, whom she later married. A family of six children ensued and predominated until 1874 when Clark opened a free dispensary for women in Boston.

By focusing this cohort of early women graduates of Western Reserve we gain a sense of the diversity of their career trajectories. No single career arc applies to these women. As noted, marriage comprised a career-ending event for Clark, despite her evident skill and talent. Emily Blackwell, younger sister of Elizabeth, followed and went on to found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children and ended her career at the London School of Medicine for Women. Marie Zakrzewska, trained as a midwife in Berlin, emigrated in hopes of becoming a physician. Prominent women of Cleveland sponsored her through the Female Medical Education Society of Ohio, and she went on to a distinguished career in women’s medical education. Cordelia Greene pursued a career in the so-called “water cure” or hydropathy movement, starting at a spa in Cleveland, and ending in a western New York water cure establishment. Sarah Chadwick’s career included a year of service as a surgeon to Civil War troops, but married afterward, and retired from medicine. Elizabeth Griselle rounded out the group, with perhaps the most conventional private medical practice in Salem, Ohio. So, we at CWRU can justly take pride in the early strides to promote women as medical professionals, but need to go beyond a cursory mention to more fully understand the challenges these pioneering women faced in their struggle to attain equality in the workplace and in society more generally.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Edmonson, PhD, chief curator of Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum

For more on our pioneering medical women at Western Reserve, see

Linda Lehmann Goldstein. “Roses Bloomed in Winter: Women Medical Graduates of Western Reserve College, 1852-1856,” Case Western Reserve University, May 1989.

Linda Lehmann Goldstein, “ ‘Without compromising in any particular’: The success of medical coeducation in Cleveland, 1850-1856, Caduceus 10 (1994): 101-116.

A Look Back: 2014 Dittrick Events

Throughout 2014, the Dittrick Museum shared our enthusiasm for the history of medicine with a growing audience. Whether you’re from our home campus of Case Western Reserve University, the greater Cleveland area, or part of a larger digital community, we appreciate all of these opportunities to meet and learn with you.

Our growing public outreach led us to work with the wonderful Cleveland Bazaar, host a book talk for author Kate Manning, and hear a lecture on WWI medicine from scholar Beth Linker. We explored a cemetery, rare book archives, and museum galleries with diverse groups of visitors. What’s more, these events were beautifully captured by local photographer Frank Lanza.

We invite you to look back on the success of last year and join us for some of the great upcoming events planned for 2015.

Deadly Effects: Epidemics, Vaccines, and the Measles Outbreak

The recent outbreak  of measles at Disneyland has spurred a rash of competing newscast, blog posts, and social media responses. One question continues to be foremost–as quoted by CNN correspondent Mariano Castillo, “how bad is it?” Castillo reminds the reader: “to call the news surrounding vaccinations a “debate” is misleading. The scientific and medical consensus is clear: Vaccinations are safe, and they work.” [1] The question is not about efficacy but about consequences; parents may have a variety of reasons for not vaccinating their children, sometimes on the grounds of safety or mistrust of the vaccine. However, as pointed out by members of the CDC and others, those who do not vaccinate live in the same communities as those who do; what happens if measles once more establishes a foothold? What might be at stake? History can provide useful parallels–especially the history of how vaccines were first administered and why.

Deadly Childhood Diseases

IDiphtheria throatn 1875, the 243-person death toll from diphtheria comprised 8.2% of all reported deaths. As was typical of the disease, children comprised most of the mortalities. In the 1880s Dr. Joseph O’Dwyer, a Cleveland Ohio native, developed a method of intubating patients (inserting a tube to keep the airway open) to survive the life-threatening phase of diphtheria. Otherwise, the diphtheria infection slowly closed the throat, and children suffocated to death. [Dittrick Museum, hall exhibit. Read more.]

In 1898, Cleveland witnessed a minor outbreak of of the worlds most dreaded diseases: smallpox. Only a year later, the cases jump from 70 to 475, six times the rate of outbreak. In 1900, the numbers double again to 993–and then, in the plaSmallpox_hartzell4gue years of 1901 and 1902, more than 1200 people become ill, with over 200 dying at the height of the disaster. Many of these were children. Those who survived the epidemic were left with horrendous scarring, the “pocks” that welted on the skin left their mark for a lifetime. [Dittrick museum, hall exhibit. Read more.]

In the 20th century, one of the most feared childhood disorders not only killed, but crippled. Poliomyelitis killed more than 6000 people in the US in 1916 [2]; most were under the age of 14. Parents lived in fear; no one–not even President FDR–was safe. An early attempt at vaccine creation proved unsuccessful, and the disease continued. By 1952, 57,628 polio cases were reported in the United States, 21,000 of them paralytic cases.[2]

In each oR.W.Lovett, Treatment of Infantile Paralysisf these epidemics, the victims were largely children–but also those with weakened immune systems, the elderly, the ill. The diseases attacked the powerless, who expired or were crippled under the horrifies gaze of their loved ones. And for much of history, no cure availed itself. But cures did come, in the form of vaccines. And strangely, the key to polio had been found be a man searching in desperation for a cure for measles.

Measles and Milestones

Measles does not, perhaps, sound as terrifying as small pox and polio. However, this highly contagious disease had a much higher mortality rate. Affected children were contagious both before and after the appearance of measles, and worse–it could survive in the air for over an hour just waiting for the next victim. [3] Children got diarrhea and vomited, had a vivid red rash and watery eyes. It hospitalized an average of 48,000 Americans each year through the 1960s, leaving the survivors compromised sometimes with brain damage or deafness. With over 4000 cases of encephalitis, many children became wards of the state. [2] In other, poorer, countries, millions died every year. Alexander Langmuir, chief CDC epidemiologist in 1961, stated emphatically: “Any parent who has seen his small child suffer even for a few days with a persistent fever of 105, hacking cough and delirium, wants to see this disease prevented.” [3]

Smallpox_vaccinephoto

smallpox vaccine

At the same time, it was important for Langmuir that the vaccines be safe. In 1935, Maurice Brodie and John Kolmer tested a polio vaccine that proved disastrous and even deadly. It would be 1952 before the next serious trial, the successful Salk and Sabine vaccines. John Enders, who found the key to polio while looking for a measles cure, created a vaccine of mild measles that was added to other boosters children received for the diseases mentioned above. At last, children could be better protected and parents need not fear the daycare centers or play dates, school yards or other common grounds that had harbored these diseases. [3]

That does not mean, of course, that vaccines were unproblematic. The first disease to yield a vaccine was, in fact, smallpox. Edward Jenner injected a milder version, that of cowpox, into a healthy child. The act of risk and daring would be considered highly unethical today–but again, small pox killed and maimed many in the 18th century. The treatment worked. For polio, the earlier trial had resulted in illness and death. A later version, by Albert Sabin, introduced a weakened but still living virus. Jonas Salk’s vaccine worked by stimulating the immune system against polio without giving a live virus. Complications still arose, such as the contamination of both vaccines with SV40 virus at a facility of American Home Products. Even so, the US was polio free by 1979, and the crippling, painful, deadly disease no longer threatened American children. Measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, polio, and diphtheria–despite setbacks, US parents, spurred by public action and social responsibility as well as the need to protect their own children, flocked to immunization centers. The understanding: we aren’t protected until we are *all* protected.

But the truth is, these diseases have not vanished. They rage in other countries and among the poor and disenfranchised. Viruses are no respecter of persons or of borders, and in this global world, they come unbidden. The World Health Organization recently published some facts about measles, alone:

  • Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
  • In 2013, there were 145 700 measles deaths globally – about 400 deaths every day or 16 deaths every hour.
  • Measles vaccination resulted in a 75% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2013 worldwide.
  • In 2013, about 84% of the world’s children received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday through routine health services – up from 73% in 2000.
  • During 2000-2013, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 15.6 million deaths making measles vaccine one of the best buys in public health.[4]smallpox_hartzell2

The outbreak in Disneyland does not represent a strange isolated event, but a reintroduction of a dangerous virus onto American soil. The history of vaccination does not suggest that the process or practice was easier then than now; quite the reverse. But the impetus to immunize was driven far less by an understanding of choice and far more by a unified desire to eradicate disease…and by the still-painful and still-present memories of its horrors.

References

[1] Mariano Castillo. “Measles Outbreak: How bad is it?” CNN Feb 2, 2015 http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/02/health/measles-how-bad-can-it-be/

[2] Polio Timeline, History of Vaccines http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio

[3] Arthur Allen. Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. London, Norton 2007 (216-217)

[4] Measles. World Health Organization. Nov 2104. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs286/en/

Additional reading:

Lucas, William Palmer, 1880-1961. Experiments as to the protective value of certain specific sera and vaccines against the virus of poliomyelitis / by William P. Lucas and Robert B. Osgood. Boston, Mass. : Wright & Potter Printing Co., State Printers … , 1912

Horder, Thomas J. (Thomas Jeeves), 1871-1955. Clinical pathology in practice, with a short account of vaccine-therapy, by Thomas J. Horder ..London, H. Frowde; Hodder & Stoughton, 1910

Kirkpatrick, J. (James), approximately 1696-1770. The analysis of inoculation: comprising the history, theory, and practice of it: with an occasional consideration of the most remarkable appearances in the small pocks. London, J. Buckland [etc.] 1761

Author: Brandy L Schillace, PhD, Research Associate/Guest Curator, Dittrick Medical History Center

Dittrick Book Launch Event: Rhetoric in the Flesh

Contributor: Julia Balacko

EVENT: Book Launch for T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh

hRecently, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh: Trained Vision, Technical Expertise, and the Gross Anatomy Lab at the Dittrick Museum. At the event, Fountain discussed some of the key arguments from the book, and shared anecdotes from his participant observation in the human gross anatomy lab.

Fountain’s text is an ethnographic account penned from the perspective of a rhetorician of science communication. His focus on language offers a lens into anatomical learning and clinical training that is at once pointed and engrossing. Through his account, Fountain reveals the underlying relationships and tensions between students of anatomy and the bodies they dissect.

As I learned from the book launch talk and from an initial reading of the text, one term that Fountain’s participants in the laboratory often returned to was “making.” This word appears counterintuitive, given that dissection entails acts that are more closely associated with destruction than creation: scraping fat from tissues, disarticulating bones, removing organs to see structures beneath of them. However, “making” had a particular cadence in the interviews and interactions that Fountain had with students and faculty in the lab.

Students, instructors, and teaching assistants in the cadaver laboratories employed “making” to describe cutting and preparing the corpse in ways that would mimic the beautifully colored, flawlessly sketched anatomical drawings in their medical atlases. To dissect a body in a careful fashion that would reveal biological structures as cleanly and as clearly as the textbooks was to “make” the body, both into a mimicry of the visuals in the textbooks, and into a body that was representative of what the books deemed anatomical truth. Some students alternatively deemed this process “Netterizing,” or rendering their cadaver’s anatomy to appear as manifestly as the eminent anatomical artist and physician Frank Netter did in his illustrations.

Students in the past have also “made” cadavers into new visual things, as the Dittrick Museum’s collection of rare photographs from 19th century medical schools reveal. Medical students in that era would commonly photograph themselves and their classmates standing over the body they were dissecting. These photographs were frequently sent as postcards to family members as a sign of pride, demonstrating the students’ hard work in medical school and their experience in the anatomical laboratory. In these images, the cadaver represented how they were becoming professionally distinct as physicians: they could learn by dismembering real human bodies, a privilege not extended to other professions and certainly not to a scientifically-minded lay person.

The Dittrick Museum Chief Curator, James M. Edmonson, published these photographs along with historical commentary in the book Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930. Yale professor John Harley Warner, also a historian of medicine, coauthors the book.

As we see, the students dissecting bodies can transform these cadavers into something else. Yet bodies can be “made” by more than the students and faculty alone. Fountain’s text argues that bodies can make themselves. In one case in his book, a woman who donated her body to science accompanied her anatomical gift with a letter. The letter contained details of the domestic abuse she suffered, as she explained the scars medical students would discover on her skin when they began to dissect her. The woman cast her body in a context that the students who received her body, and read her correspondence, could not ignore when considering the conditions under which that body lived and died. This woman “made” her body a representation of its life, its embodied struggles, and its significance as a precious gift to the students who received it.

Cadavers can also “make” themselves in death. One cadaver in the laboratory Fountain observed at had late-stage cancer that had not been reported on her medical records before she was embalmed for dissection. The cancerous tissue was stiff and impossible to cut through. It obscured structures, encased organs, and halted the dissection. In this instance, the cadaver makes itself both anomalous– by not representing “true” anatomical structures like the textbooks– and simultaneously representative of the reality of disease, which medical students will confront as future physicians.

In the past and today, cadaver dissection stands an important source of experiential and visual knowledge of the material human body for medical professionals. Like the 19th century medical students who posed proudly next to their cadavers, medical students today are equally as privileged to gain firsthand knowledge from the human body. Although students’ relationships to their cadavers have no doubt changed, as Fountain’s book suggests, the study of anatomy remains an exceptional experience in the education of future physicians.

You can learn more about and purchase Rhetoric in the Flesh here: http://www.attw.org/publications/book-series/rhetoric-in-the-flesh

To learn more about the Dittrick Museum’s photographs, get Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine here: http://www.amazon.com/Dissection-Photographs-American-Medicine-1880-1930/dp/0922233349

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. Her research explores the history, development, and cultural meaning of cadaver dissection in American medical education.

Avoiding the Dead of Winter

The Dittrick Museum of Medical History is located in Northeast Ohio — an area (in)famous for its harsh, long winters. After last year’s “Polar Vortex,” we dug into our collections to discover how 19th century physicians would advise to protect ourselves from the dangers of falling temperatures.

Frontispiece from Taking Cold, 1873

Frontispiece from Taking Cold, 1873

A little text entitled Taking Cold: The Cause of Half Our Diseases (1873) by Dr. John Hayward outlines ways to maintain warmth and health. To the author, “Taking Cold” referred to being exposed to cold air, while catching “A Cold” was one of the many diseases this exposure could cause. In fact, the following preventative methods were vitally important as Hayward determined the origin of half the known 19th century diseases was such an exposure. Additionally, cold-caused diseases accounted for half the cases of illness and death the author attended to as a physician. Granted, Hayward only recognized ninety different diseases at the time his book was published.

Preventing “Taking Cold”

Caricature by George Cruikshank (1800)

Caricature by George Cruikshank (1800)

Clothing: Hayward warned readers that wearing improper or insufficient clothing could result in ill-health or death. For example, wearing “muslin and low-bodied dresses by ladies and thinner neckties, vests, and boots by gentlemen for evening parties” could leave an individual at risk for various maladies, such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, headache, or neuralgia.

To be safe in cold environments, the author advised adults and children constantly wear winter flannels, particularly at night. He specifically cautioned against exposing a child’s bare skin to changes in temperature. Unfortunately, the doctor was sure most people did not heed his clothing advice as “many a lovely child has been sacrificed to its mother’s pride and her tyrant, Fashion.”

Food: To avoid the dangers of cold, Hayward advised all individuals consume “flesh” once or twice a day and to never be exposed to the cold when hungry as the system was then “less resistant to evil influences.”

Etching by Cruikshank depicting the types of baths used in the "Cold Water Cure."

Etching by Cruikshank depicting the types of baths used in the “The Cold Water Cure.”

Baths: Interestingly, Hayward recommended daily cold baths to prevent the damaging effects of exposure to cold air. Following the principles of Hydropathy, these invigorating baths steeled the system against the perils of temperature variations and provided a variety of other health benefits. In fact, Joel Shew, author of Hydropathy, Or, the Water Cure (1851) recommended cold baths for the treatment a huge number of ailments, including rickets, gout, cancer, tuberculosis, and ague.

Respirator based on Jeffreys' Design from an 1890 Down Bros. Catalog.

Respirator based on Jeffreys’ Design from an 1890 Down Bros. Catalog.

Respirators: The final means of avoiding “taking cold” was to use a respirator before going out into the winter air or even just before entering colder rooms. Hayward recommended using the Jeffreys’ respirator to “warm the fresh air as it is being drawn into the lungs” by the action of breathing through layers of fine metallic wire.

The Last Resort

Understanding that not all of his readers would be able to completely avoid the cold, Hayward also provided information about “the antidote of taking cold,” a substance known as aconitine, or monkshood. Although still marginally used as an anti-fever herbal remedy, the toxic properties of the plant make frequent use a dangerous gamble. Thus, Hayward’s recommendation that “no person ought to be be without a bottle of this invaluable preventative, nor neglect to take it on the slightest suspicion of cold” is probably not the most sound advice. Best to stick to wearing many layers, cold baths, frequent meat-eating, and using a respirator.

About the Author:

Catherine Osborn, BA, BS, is a graduate student in Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, the Editorial Associate at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, as well as a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. She enjoys pursuing historical tangents and proving she can find almost any source online.

References:

Down Brothers. 1890. Catalog of Surgical Instruments and Appliances. London.

Hayward, John. 1873. Taking Cold; (The Cause of Half Our Diseases): It’s Nature, Causes, Prevention, and Cure. E. Gould & Son, London.

Shew, Joel. 1851. Hydropathy, or The Water Cure; it’s Principles, Processes, and Modes of Treatment. Fowlers and Wells Publishers, New York City, NY.

The Stomach and its Discontents: Digesting the Winter Holidays

photo 1“One of the most uncomfortable beings on earth is a Dyspeptic. To most other invalids there is some hope of a change […] It will neither kill the patient nor depart from him. Hitherto, it has been more hopeless than a sentence of imprisonment for life.” –J.C. Eno, A Treatise on the Stomach and its Trials 1865.

For a number of people, the winter holidays coincide with family meals of increased size and frequency, an unaccustomed embarrassment of riches. (I recall family dinners of my youth wherein an entire table had been commandeered only for desserts, for instance.) But as with all good things, too much is the cause of various complaints–mostly to digestion.

A look at our historical collections might suggest to the casual reader that ailments of the stomach occupied our forebears more than anything else. The variety of tracts, treatises, books, warnings, cures, and quackery are matched only by the strange moralistic tenor of their presentation. The stomach made the man (and woman), apparently, and to be plagued by bad digestion was a more devilish thing, if we take Eno’s suggestion, than dphoto 2eath itself. What was a dyspectic to do?

The suggestions for cure might surprise and alarm you. Eno remained convinced that the secret to good digestion was proper nutrition, and what could be more nutritious than “raw meat jelly”? Milk and eggs were also highly recommended (let’s hope none of the patients were lactose intolerant). [1] Of course, J.C. Eno might not be the very best or most unbiased account. He was, after all, a manufacturer of digestive aids!

Some other useful anecdotes from the collection:

1. Remember to chew! From DIGESTION AND ITS DISORDERS, 1867, F.W. Pavy:

“Defective mastication, arising from a habit of too hastily eating–or bolting the food, or from a faulty condition of the masticatory organs, forms a frequent source of imperfect digestion.”  [2]

2. Always be mindful of those hard to digest items…again, not for the lactose intolerant. Or for the vegetarian, apparently. From ON PAIN AFTER FOOD, 1854, Edward Ballard:

“These observations show that vegetable substances generally are digested less readily than animal, and that inviducal articles, veal and pork are digested most slowly; mutton, beef, and fowl with greater rapidity; turkey, lamb, and young pig and potato still more readily; fish, milk, pearl barley and tapioca more quickly than these; and that gastric digestion was completed in the shortest time in the instances of rice, eggs, salmon, tripe and venison.” [3]

3. Moderation in all things! From THE STOMACH AND ITS TRIALS, 1865, J.C. Eno:

A Judicious Rule–1st, Restrain your appetite, and get always up from table with a desire to eat more; 2d, Do not touch anything that does not agree with your stomach, be it mot agreeable to the palate. As Burton says, ‘Excess of meat breedeth sickness, and gluttony causeth choleric diseases; by surfeiting many perish, but he that dieteth himself prolongeth his life.” [1]

4. Let us not get carried away, though… INDIGESTIONS, 1867, Thomas King Chambers:

“A few years ago, during the prevalence of the attention excited by Mr. Banting’s case [miraculous weight loss], I did indeed hear reports of persons having injured themselves by adopting with over-strictness the system by which that famous man tells us he regained the sight of his toes, forgetting that no similar mountain to his had ever impeded their view… The possible rectification of their circumference is not worth such stoicism, and they stop in good time.” [4]

So Happy New Year to all! May we digest these winter months with as much or more grace as our forebears (all “meat jelly” aside).

By Brandy Schillace, Research Associate, Guest Curator, Dittrick Museum

REFERENCES:

[1] Eno, J.C. The Stomach and its Trials. London, 1865.

[2] Pavy, F.W. A Treatise on the Function of Digestion; its disorders, and their treatment. London, 1867.

[3] Ballard, Edward. On Pain After Food, London, 1854

[4] Chambers, Thomas King. Indigestions; or Diseases of the Digestive Organs, Functionally Treated., London, 1867.

 

Tis the Season for Sneezin! Historical “Cures” for the Common Cold

photoThe temperatures are dropping; snow begins to fly. Soon, our thoughts are turned to hearth and home, warm drinks, good company, and holiday cheer. But nothing dampens the spirit like that other winter arrival: the common cold.

It has plagued us for centuries, and we’ve devised a lot of rather strange “cures” and even strange alleviations for symptoms. Lisa Smith provides some of the more elaborate ones in a post for the Sloane Letters Blog, including bleeding, blisters, and purging (as well as drinking milk for lung ailments!) Cookbooks also carried home remedies; the blog Jane Austen’s World provides an excerpt from The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion, a 1753 cookbook compiled by Eliza Smith:

Take pearls, crab’s-eyes, red coral, white amber, burnt hartshorn, and oriental bezoar, of each half an ounce; the black tips of crabs-claws three ounces; make all into a paste, with a jelly of vipers, and roll it into little balls, which dry and keep for use. (See more)

One interesting work on the common cold–and the dangers of ignoring it–comes from the Dittrick rare book collection: A serious address on the dangerous consequences of neglecting common coughs and colds : with ample directions for the prevention cure of consumptions / the fourth edition. To which are added observations on the hooping [sic] cough and asthma, by Thomas Hayes in 1786.

As Hayes is quick to point out, “great numbers of persons of both sexes are afflicted every Winter with most dreadful colds” (5). He blames the common cold for “an annual loss of twenty thousand persons in the island of Great Britain” and wonders, given it’s terrible consequences, why more attention isn’t paid to the matter. The whole purpose of his essay, in fact, is to “convince the public of the danger of depending too much upon that fatal expectation”–that of getting better on their own (11). Let’s take a moment to see how Hayes work stacks up to our modern conception of the common cold, shall we?

1. Causes of the Cold

Hayes: A cold arises from the effect of cold or moist air, applied to the surface of the body and lungs, from going too thinly clad, or exposing the body to cold air, after having been heated by exercise; or, when the pores are opened from drinking warm liquors. (13)

Today, we understand that the common cold may actually be caused by any number of over 100 viruses, the rhinovirus being most prevalent. It enters the body by mouth, eyes, or nose, usually by touching commonly shared objects or by inhaling air infected with the droplets of someone else’s cough or sneeze. The cold, we now realize, does not cause colds, but we do see more infections in the winter. Why? Because we are in closer proximity to other people, the primary culprits for spreading the virus.

2. Symptoms of a Cold

Hayes: A Cold, then, is a sense of chilliness on the skin, attended with lassitude or weariness, and slight shivers at times, with a degree of headache and flying pains in the small of the back and limbs, a stuffing of the nose, frequent sneezing, and a running of clear limpid water from the eyes and nose, with or without a dry tickling cough, or hoarsness. Sometimes the sneezing, stuffing of the nose, or cough, give the first intelligence of its approach.  (19)

The symptoms, it seems, have not really changed much in the past few hundred years! The Mayo Clinic gives a list, but most of us could supply the same from experience:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Low-grade fever
  • Mild fatigue

Hayes also points out that left unattended, the cold may attack the lungs and become far more serious; the modern clinic will instead suggest that a worsening of symptoms means that you do not have a cold at all, but something much more serious (like a respiratory infection or flu).

3. The “Cure” for the Common Cold

Hayes: In curing colds, three things are essentially necessary; to open the obstructed pores; to discharge any irritating matter out of the constitution and to observe such a kind of diet […] conducive to recovery. (32).

The obstructed pores may be opened with heat, and with a variety of powders and tinctures (most of which sound rather alarming). Bathing in warm water and inhaling steam are also recommended and seem a bit more reasonable to the modern reader. These are to be followed by bleeding or purging, however, to remove the “bad” and make way for the good. But perhaps most interesting is the diet Hayes is pleased to recommend to patients suffering from cold.

To begin, he suggests limiting intake of any kind. To eat and drink: water-gruel, small pudding, rice, beer, linseed-tea, toast and apple-water. To correct the blood, boiled turnips, roasted apples, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, alfalfa (35). For a troubling cough, a “syrup of white poppies” (no doubt effective). To “sheath passage to the lungs,” he recommends emulsions of the following sort:

Take of barley water, six measures; white sugar, and powder of gum arabic, of each three drams; gradually mix one ounce of fresh and sweet oils of almonds, linseed, and olives.

If this does not answer,

A dram or two of spermaceti (that is, the substance of the sperm whale cranial cavity) may be dissolved with double the quantity of mucilege of gum arabic, and a little sugar […] The spermaceti should be free of rancidity, and when the emulsion id made it should not be kept above twenty-four hours, as it is apt to ferment. (40-41).

These concoctions were meant to coat the throat; the recipes for “purging” the body are more elaborate still (and even less pleasant!)

And what of today’s cure for the cold? Alas, there isn’t one! Antibiotics are of no use, and most over the counter remedies only mask or lesson symptoms. The greatest advice generally consists in drinking plenty of fluids , getting plenty of rest, getting good nutrition and vitamins, and–despite Hayes grave warning–waiting for nature to take it’s course!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brandy Schillace, PhD, is a medical humanities scholar and historian, research associate to the Dittrick Museum, and managing editor of Culture, Medicine, & Psychiatry. She splits her time between old books and new technology…and spends an awful lot of time in the basement.