Archive for the ‘Medicine’ Category

“the Blody flux”

JEMIMA CONDUCT, the young woman from Pleasantdale, New Jersey, once again writes about actions of the British.

Monday May first [1775]. this day I think is a Day of mourning we have word Come that the fleet is coming into Newyork also & to Day the men of our Town is to have a general meeting to Conlud upon measures Which may Be most Proper to be taken; they have Chose men to act for them & I hope the Lord will Give them Wisdom to Conduct wisely & Prudently In all matters.

In 1776, disease ravaged the area. “July 23, Did that Distressing Disorder the Blody flux Began to rage in this Neighborhood.” Jemima cites death after death: of friends and neighbors, adults and children, civilians and soldiers. “August the 16th, Then Died Jered freeman. he was taken Sick at newyork among the Sogers & was brought home & Died Soon After.” Some soldiers were killed in action, but more died as a result of sickness.

September 1776. We hear News from our army at Montigue & Several of them we hear is Dead. sense there Departure Benjamin Canfield & Stevan Morris, David Luis Died with the Camp Disorder & william acorn we hear was killed by the injuns; Sen Jabez freeman the Son of the Late Diseast John freeman is Dead, also Sias Heady Died up there with Sickness.

The bloody flux or dysentery is characterized by bloody diarrhea. The “Camp Disorder” is likely typhus. It is heartbreaking to read Jemima’s list of the dead. It goes on and on, year after year, and is a reminder of the fragility of life at that time and the ineffectiveness of treatment. What is also impressive is the way sickness and death were borne: always regarded as God’s will, to be accepted. Gratitude was expressed for those who had been spared.

Jemima Condict, Her Book: Being a Transcript of the Diary of an Essex County Maid During the Revolutionary War (Orange N.J.: Jemima Condict Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1930), 52, 59, 60, 61. The original of Jemima Condict’s diary is in the archives of the New Jersey Historical Society.

posted March 23rd, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: American soldiers,Condict, Jemima,Death,Illness,Medicine

A remedy for an earache!

Living in Philadelphia with her family in 1799 while her husband served as secretary of the navy, REBECCA STODDERT kept up a correspondence with her niece Eliza. Her letters included gossip as well as information about personal and domestic matters. And, in this letter, a remedy for an earache!

April 15, 1799My Dear Eliza,—I have been mending up the children’s old clothes to fit them for school. At length Harriet and Nancy go, and when I can get shoes for Richard he will go also. I suppose you are surprised at my saying “when I get shoes.” You will hardly believe that the difficulty of getting such things is greater here than in Georgetown, but so it is. . . .

After a passage in which Mrs. Stoddert writes about the elopement of the daughter of William and Anne Willing Bingham with a French count of “horrid character,” and penniless besides, she goes on to discuss other matters.

I hope long before this my acquaintances have been told it was a mistake about my hair being dressed. I declare, I would not have such a thing supposed for a trifle; notwithstanding I am the only person, almost, if not entirely, that has gone into company with straight locks. But then I have always made use of powder, and I was once under the barber’s hands to cut my hair. . . .

Harriet’s hearing is very near, if not quite, restored. I was advised by Mrs. Wolcott, the secretary of the treasury’s lady, to keep some of Grace’s hair, or any black person’s (as that was most efficacious), pretty moist with the best sweet-oil I could procure, constantly in the ear most affected. This I have done for a month with the greatest success. So much for old women’s receipts, as I suppose they would be called by the doctors. . . .

Grace was in all likelihood a free black servant or, more likely, a slave in the Stoddert household. While oil of some kind has been a common remedy for an earache this is the first time I have seen the recommendation that it be mixed with hair, in this case, of a black person.

Kate Mason Rowland, “Philadelphia a Century Ago, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1898, 809-10.

posted May 2nd, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Children,Fashion,Illness,Medicine,Philadelphia,Stoddert, Rebecca Lowndes

“by applying laudanum and sea water . . . “

As writer and historian HANNAH ADAMS says in her Memoir “It was poverty, not ambition, or vanity, that first induced me to become an author, or rather a compiler. But I now formed the flattering idea, that I might not only help myself, but benefit the public.” She set out to write a history of New England.

I selected this subject, rather from public utility, than for my own gratification. My object was to render my compilation useful to those in early life, who had not time or opportunity to peruse the large mass of materials, which . . . lay scattered in many publications. I knew my work would require much reading upon dry subjects, such as ancient news prints, state papers, &c. But I wrote for bare subsistence, and never wished to gain anything from the pubic which I had not at least earned by laborious investigation. I also considered, that attention to such an antipoetical subject would have a tendency to keep my mind in a more healthy state, than the perusal of works which are calculated to excite the feelings.

Hannah did extensive research, examining records and old manuscripts, traveling to cities where they were housed. She drove herself hard, writing early and late during one winter. She found that her eyesight began to fail suddenly and she was obliged to stop work. She consulted several doctors.

The gloomy apprehension of being totally deprived of my sight was distressing beyond description. I not only anticipated the misfortune of being obliged forever to relinquish those literary pursuits which had constituted so much of my enjoyment during life, and was at this time my only resource for a subsistence. . . . At length, by the advice of a respectable friend, I applied to Dr. Jeffries; and by assiduously following his prescription for about two years, I partially recovered my sight. For the encouragement of those who are troubled with similar complaints, I would mention, that when I first consulted the doctor, he had not any expectation my eyes would recover so as to enable me to make the use of them I have since done. But by applying laudanum and sea water several times in the course of a day, for two years, I recovered so far as to resume my studies; and by employing an amanuensis to assist me in transcribing my manuscript, I was enabled to print the work in 1799.

Hannah was careful in her work to give credit where it was due.

Preciously to putting the copy to the press, I consulted all the living authors, and showed them the use I had made of their works in my compilation, and they did not make any objection. As my eyes were still weak, I could not bestow the same attention in condensing the last part of my History, as the first; and consequently the History of the American Revoluton was much more prolix than I originally intended. In giving an account of the war, my ignorance of military terms rendered it necessary to transcribe more from Dr. [David] Ramsay’s History, that I had done in any other part of the work. I therefore wrote an apology to the doctor, and had the satisfaction of receiving in return a very interesting letter from Mrs. Ramsay, expressing her approbation of my work, and inclosing a bill of ten dollars.

Although she had intended to solicit subscriptions to defray the cost of printing. the problem with her eyes prevented her from doing so. She had to publish the work entirely at her own expense.

A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams 1755-1831 (Boston: Grey and Bowen, 1832), pp 22-27.

posted March 17th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Hannah,Illness,Medicine,Research

Martha’s “personal Grief and anguish of mind”

In a letter dated December 30, 1799, Abigail Adams wrote her sister Mary Cranch that her nephew Will Smith Shaw (son of her sister Elizabeth Shaw Peabody and private secretary of John Adams) had set out for Mount Vernon some days earlier to deliver messages of condolence from President Adams and Congress to Martha Washington on the death of her husband. Abigail remarked that “It was thought most respectfull to send a special Messenger.”
Washington died quite suddenly of acute laryngitis on December 14. His doctors had given him a blister on his throat, an enema, an emetic to induce vomiting, and a mixture for soothing his throat. In addition, following standard practice at the time, Washington was bled—four times, losing a total of 32 ounces of blood; this huge blood loss probably caused his death.
Abigail wrote again to Mary in January of 1800, describing Shaw’s reception and Mrs. Washington’s reaction.

. . . . Mr. [William Smith] Shaw returnd yesterday from Mount Vernon. He was much gratified by his tour, tho regreeted that he did not see Mrs. Washington. She strove the whole time he was there, which was two days, to get resolution sufficient to see him, but finally excused herself. She had the painfull task to perform, to bring her mind to comply with the request of Congress, which she has done in the handsomest manner possible in a Letter to the President which will this day be communicated to congress. She wrote me in reply to my Letter an answer repleat with a sense of my sympathy, and expressive of her own personal Grief and anguish of mind. Mr. [Tobias] Lear [Washington’s secretary] told Mr. Shaw that she had not been able to shed a tear since the Genlls. death, untill she received the Presidents and my Letters when she was two hours getting through them, tho they were not Lengthy. . . .

Abigail’s letters can be found in The New Letters of Abigail Adams,1788-1801 edited with an Introduction by Stuart Mitchell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947), pp 224 and 226, online HERE. The illustration is an etching done in 1800 by an unidentified artist; it is at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

posted February 22nd, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Adams, John,Cranch, Mary,Death,Medicine,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“Nabby” Adams’ Ordeal

In Recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this post recounts the experience of Abigail Adams Smith with breast cancer. Nabby, as she was called (featured in the last post), developed a tumor in her breast at the age of 45. She journeyed, from upstate New York where she was living, to her parents’ home in Massachusetts. She wrote a letter to the famous doctor Benjamin Rush describing her condition and requesting his advice. Her letter was enclosed with one from her father to Rush on September 12, 1811. She wrote:

… about May 1810 I first perceived a hardness in my right Breast just above the nipple which occasioned me an uneasy sensation, like a burning some times an itching & at time a deep darting pain through the Breast, but without any discolouration at all. it has continued to Contract and the Breast has become much smaller than it was. the tumor appears now about the size of a Cap, and does not appear to adhere but it be loose.… I applied to a Physician and he recommended me to apply a Plaister of the cicuta*.… I have also taken a considerable of cicuta in Pills, but I thought they produced a heaviness in my head…. I have consulted several Physicians upon the Subject they have all advised me not to make any outward application to it…. Still I am uneasy upon the Subject—for I think I observe it becoming harder and a little redness at times on the skin…. Dr Warren who has seen it told me that in its present state he would not advise me to do anything for it….

* Hemlock: a poultice prepared with the leaves of the plant was applied topically to treat tumours.

Doctor Rush chose to reply to his old friend John Adams, rather than writing to Nabby herself about such a sensitive topic. Below are excerpts from Rush’s letter to John Adams:

… After the experience of more than 50 years in cases similar to hers, I must protest against all local applications and internal medicines for her relief. They now and then cure, but in 19 cases out of 20 in tumors in the breast they do harm or suspend the disease until it passes beyond that time in which the only radical remedy is ineffectual. The remedy is the knife. From her account of the moving state of the tumor, it is now in a proper situation for the operation. Should she wait till it suppurates or even inflames much, it may be too late. The pain of the operation is much less than her fears represent it to be …. I repeat again, let there be no delay in flying to the knife. Her time of life calls for expedition in this business, for tumors such as hers tend much more rapidly to cancer after 45 than in more early life. I sincerely sympathize with her and with you and your dear Mrs. Adams in this family affliction, but it will be but for a few minutes if she submit to have it extirpated, and if not, it will probably be a source of distress and pain to you all for years to come. It shocks me to think of the consequences of procrastination in her case.

Following the reply from Rush, dated September 20, Nabby had the breast removed. Read the distressing account of the surgery performed on Nabby in James Olson’s book, Bathsheba’s Breast, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) Nabby hoped she had been cured. But her mother wrote to her brother John Quincy on October 22, 1813:

we are all well, except your Sister Smith, who has had a very sick winter, she has so far recovered, as I hope, to be upon her journey here again, John has undertaken to get her here at her most earnest request. I fear it will be, to be laid by her Ancestors. Such are her complaints; that I fear I shall have one of the distressing and trying scenes of my Life to go through To heaven I submit, trusting that as my trials are, so will my strength be—

Nabby died in 1813 from a recurrence and spread of the cancer.

For Nabby’s description of her problem and her mother’s comments see a presentation made on November 4, 2013 at the South Shore Hospital on Long Island, New York, sponsored by the Abigail Adams Historical Society. For Rush’s reply see “Benjamin Rush on Cancer,” by Michael Shimkin in Cancer Research, 1976; 36:2117-2118.

posted October 30th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Adams, John,Death,Health,Medicine,Smith, Abigail "Nabby" Adams

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