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.


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.

Published by

Catherine C. Osborn

I am a PhD 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 Medical History Center. My research focuses on interpretations of illness and use of medical technologies both cross-culturally and historically. I believe that it is only through multidisciplinary study that health and the human approaches to managing it can be truly understood.

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