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What to Do When You are Sick

May 27, 2011

I haven’t posted in over a week and for that I apologize.  We have been busy here at the 1900 farm, the last of the corn went in, and all three spring litters of pigs have arrived.  The biggest obstacle to a new post however, has been my recent bout of illness.  I must say, when it comes to being ill, I am very thankful that I live in 2011 and not in 1900.  Getting well is not always a fun process, but modernly we enjoy things like ibuprofen and penicillin.  I can’t imagine what getting well would be like without those simple comforts.

My recent illness and first aid certification training yesterday, led me to think about what treatments would be available on a farm in 1900.  The best resource I have for this is a book copyrighted in 1884; Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book and Household Physician.  The book is subtitled, “or Practical Knowledge for the People, ” and it suggests many remedies which we may consider outlandish by 2011 standards. Books like these surely helped ladies and gentlemen on the 1900 farms by helping identify problems and making recommendations on how to treat more common ailments, it may have proved invaluable.

It’s not that doctor’s weren’t around in 1900.  The profession in the United States had existed for quite some time.  According to the website at the National Institute for Health, by 1900 there were 25,000 medical students and 5,200 graduates in the United States.  Though most were white males, pioneers like Dr. Daniel Hale Williams of Chicago and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, opened the profession to African Americans and women.

Even in Iowa, doctors were being trained.  By 1870, the University of Iowa had established an on-campus medical school and in 1876 became one of the founding members of the Association of American Medical Colleges.  It was co-educational.  Though practicing medical professionals were available in 1900, response times were not the minutes that they are today.  Farm wives still needed to be able to handle first aid situations, and family illness.  Perhaps that’s why Dr. Chase’s book sold so well.  The dedication in the front of our copy reads;

“This, my third and last receipt book, is most respectfully dedicated to the twelve hundred thousand families, throughout the United States and Dominion of Canada, who have purchased one or both of my former books, and to their children who have thus become familiar with them, and would, therefore, desire to benefit themselves, and perpetuate the name of the ‘old doctor,’ by handing this, the crowning work of my life, to their children.  A.W. Chase, M.D.”

I believe that Dr. Chase would have been proud to know that we are still looking at his text, even from a historical standpoint.  Below I have listed a few ailments and what Dr. Chase recommends for them.

Headache, Heartburn, etc., Remedy. – A tea-spoonful of bi-carbonate of soda (baking soda) in 3 or 4 table-spoonfuls of peppermint, or cinnamon water, with 1/2 tea-spoonful of powdered ginger, or a little essence of Jamaica finger added, and taken immediately after each meal, will generally remedy this is a few days.  A does of this, and repeated in an hour, will be good in headache arising from acidity of the stomach.  If the regularly prepared water (peppermint or cinnamon) are not on hand, but 1/2 tea-spoonful of either of the essences in water, with the powdered ginger, or essence of ginger and the soda; or plain water will do, only not quite so pleasant. (108)

Having not tried this method, I do not know if it will work, but I know I appreciate an aspirin for headaches now and then.  Aspirin was developed by the German Bayer Corporation, and by 1899 was being distributed as a powder to physician worldwide for use by their patients.  It wouldn’t be available “over the counter” until 1915.  I guess farmers would have to go to the doctor, or take their chances with the cinnamon water.

Inflammation of Bowels or Belly Ache – Like other chronic inflammations, this may follow the acute form, but it also results from various other causes, as unripe fruit, taking cold, drastic physic, and improper treatment of other diseases.  ……

If the bowels are hot and feverish, bind a cold compress upon the belly over night,  –covering it well with flannel.  The warm bath should be used twice a week.  The diet must be of the most simple, un-irritating kind, –beginning with a solution of gum arabic, rice water, barley water, arrowroot or sago gruel, and gradually rising as the symptoms improve, to beef tea, mutton, and chicken broth, tender beef steak, etc. When the strength will permit gentle exercise must be taken in the open air, but not on horseback or in hard, jolting carriages.  As soon as the inflammation is subdued some mild laxative may be given in connection with an infusion of wild cherry bark, geranium, and Solomon’s seal, equal parts. (252)

This isn’t quite the radiological X ray of your abdomen common in the clinic today. Though the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in 1901 for his discovery that technology, it would not become popular for quite some time.

Medicine changed dramatically during the 20th century.  From the discovery of penicillin to the DNA mapping and the Human Genome Projects, developments  in medical science continue to shape our lives and how we approach disease.  That being said, some of the advice contained in Dr. Chase’s book, and others like it, still rings true today.  Take for instance, this passage, from Household Discoveries by Sidney Morse;

It is much better to prevent disease than to cure it.  Health depends upon strict adherence to a few simple rules.  Most of the sickness of to-day is preventable, and is due primarily to carelessness in living habits.  It is not enough, however, simply not to be ill.  Many people who are not sick, still are not well.  To really enjoy life, one should be at his best and know the thrill of abounding health and the joy of well-being….Plenty of fresh air, a sane and simple diet and regular exercise, combined with a care-free state of mind, are the secrets of a normal, healthy life.  (645)

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