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Podcast Episode 30 – Health & Medicine

In the life of an early settler, any illness, no matter the severity, could quickly become deadly. To combat this, settlers turned to their own remedies for a cure. Let’s investigate some of the early healthcare practices and popular medicinal remedies of the 1800s.  

Before we get into this episode, I’d like to give a warning that we discuss details of certain medical practices that probably aren’t suitable for those who get squeamish with graphic details. If this episode doesn’t seem like your kind of thing, I advise that you click off and join us in two weeks for the last part in our miniseries A Grave Situation. With that being said let’s jump on into Episode 29! 

We often take our health for granted. When we get sick, we have readily available medicines and doctors who cure our illnesses. We are extremely fortunate for the scientific advancements and research giving us the knowledge of how we contract sicknesses and diseases. Back in the day settlers did not know of the microscopic bacteria called a germ and how it rapidly caused disease. Today we realize that illnesses are spread by one person catching germs from another. So, we refrain from sharing cups, going near others when we’re sick, and practice self-care. Early settlers did things very differently. It was widely believed that bathing often removed protective oils from the skin and without these oils, the person was subjected to diseases. There were many common practices that aided in the spread of illness. Such as, after washing the floor or doing laundry, the dirty water was usually thrown outside the door. This dirty water would seep into the well and contaminate the clean drinking water. Settlers did not have the same cleanliness standards as we do today, mostly contributing to the fact that they simply did not know of the dangers they were inducing.  

Unfortunately, the lack of research and scientific advancements a hundred years ago, the pioneers were left to conjuring up ideas on how illnesses spread and how they could treat them. People thought that diseases travelled through the air, water, and under the ground, associating disease with a bad vapor called miasma. Doctors used scented sticks held up to the nose, which was supposed to stop the miasma before it entered the body. Cows, pigs, horses, and dogs are all big animal’s settlers suspected carried disease around, little did they know animals as small as rats could carry disease. Small animals such as the rat could fall into the common house well causing the spread of disease. The cause of sickness was unknown, doctors treated symptoms, not the cause of illness. For example, a little boy had a high pulse, the doctor would simply give him medicine to slow the heartbeat, not cure the cause of his high pulse. 

Settlers had very different treatments than we do today. People who had fevers were kept under layers of blankets. We understand now that the easiest way to break a fever is by taking a cool bath. While being tucked in with mountainous blankets, settlers were told not to allow sunlight or fresh air into the room. They believed that the cold, fresh air would make the person even more ill. Being bed ridden from the simplest of sicknesses was a regular occurrence, though a little exercise is important in recovery. Community members would often take turns nursing the sick, reading books, praying, and lending a kind hand.  

In the 1800s most doctors learned the ‘trade’ of medicine through an apprenticeship. A young man who was about 15 years or older aspiring to become a doctor would move in with a physician and trade their labour for an education. The arrangement usually lasted about 2-6 years however some students continued to a formal medical school for an extra 2-4 years. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the century most physicians were opening their practices without a degree. This was easy to get away with since medical practices were very rarely inspected. Dentists were often the town blacksmith. While getting your horses shoes fit, you could also get that pesky tooth that’s been bothering you pulled.  

Medical methods at this time could be very harmful, especially ones that were used to rid the body of disease. A man named Benjamin Rush came up with the most commonly used methods for curing diseases. Rush was a very influential professor at the Institutes of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He lectured to thousands of students and physicians following his ideas. Some of his ideas include: 

· 1- That people of African American race looked the different due to a form of leprosy 

· And 2- That tobacco caused madness and tuberculosis 

Though Rush’s disease treatments were not helpful and most of his beliefs were outrageous, he was however ahead of his time by giving humane treatment to the mentally ill. Rush, like most doctors in the 1800s, encouraged phlebotomy, purging, puking, sweating, and blistering. Phlebotomy, better known as bloodletting, is the process of draining a patient of blood by applying leeches or cutting the flesh. Let’s discuss the process of leeching.  

-First a patient’s skin was shaved and washed  

-A tube containing a leech was turned on top of the vein.  

-Milk or a drop of blood was used to encourage the bloodsucker to latch onto the spot. 

– Once the doctor thought enough blood had been taken, salt was sprinkled over the area forcing the leech to unlatch.  

The leeches would be taken off and put back into the jar for the next patient to use. In many communities, doctors, barbers, blacksmiths, and apothecaries were all places that offered this service. Barbers often advertised bloodletting as part of their business. Did you know that the red and white striped pole outside every barbershop originally represented that the shop offered bleeding as well as a haircut? Red symbolized blood and white standing for bandages.  

Rush recommended that the patient bleed at least one pint of blood a day. Medical Professionals thought that by bloodletting a patient they were relieving tension on constricted arteries and letting the poisonous “bad blood” drain out of the body. However quite the opposite was happening, bleeding only weakened the patient causing less of a chance for recovery. Bleeding was a very popular remedy and was used as a solution for many health problems. Today we donate blood to others, which is a very safe act. A certain amount is carefully taken with sterile equipment. Much different from a hundred years ago, when germs were unbeknownst to doctors. Reusing unclean medical instruments (sometimes on animals and humans), infections would occur. How do you think these infections were cured? ……If you guessed more bleeding, you are correct! The process was repeated. Wiped clean of visible dirt, the same dirty tools were used time and time again.  

Next, we’re going to talk about blistering. In the old days, it was believed that the human body could only hold one illness at a time. Blistering was usually done by acid being applied to the skin. This caused the skin to burn and form a blister. Hot pokers were another way to cause blistering to the body. The thought behind this obscure “cure” was that if someone was ill, the blister would force the other illness from the body. The patient would be magically cured and the only thing they would have to deal with now, was a blister. If you’ve been sick or hurt, you’ve probably been pinched by parents, grandparents, or siblings. This is still used today to take kids minds off of their injuries, though it is seen more as a joke. Some illnesses blistering was used for include fever, arthritis, and more serious diseases such as cholera. Settlers believed this cure to be successful, however it did not cure diseases, it simply forced the person to concentrate on a new pain. On top of dealing with a new painful blister, the original illness would still be present in the body and left to get worse. 

Doctor Rush also encouraged patients to take emetics (solutions that would induce vomiting) because he thought this was another way to get rid of the disease. Another practice he believed in was the use of laxatives to expel poisons, this was called purging. None of these methods actually worked, most of the time they weakened the patients. It is no wonder that during this time very few people trusted doctors and usually tried their own methods. 

Back then, there were no anesthetics to aid in surgery. The only operation doctors dared to try while their patient was awake was amputation. Patients were given alcohol to drink before an operation to ease their mind and relax them for the surgery. Though alcohol only partially blocked out some of the pain. Limbs were removed with hand saws, which were not sterilized. Afterwards when the job was done, the veins and arteries were cauterized. Often using hot tar to seal the wound and stop the bleeding.  

Settlers turned to local herbs to cure their ailments. How did they learn what plants to use and for what sicknesses? They sought help from Native Americans who lived in the area. Instead of risking using potentially poisonous herbs, they had help from the Native Americans who had been using herbs for centuries. Settlers learned how to treat many disorders of the intestines and stomach, for example, dysentery, and intestinal worms. They acquired the knowledge of using the inside of willow bark as an aspirin. By chewing the inside of the bark, their pain was less severe. Some of the natural remedies discovered by the Native Americans are still used today. Willow bark can still be found as an ingredient in aspirin, and Elm trees are still used as a relief of upset stomach. Early settlers began to realize that the Native Americans were particularly successful in first aid. Treating snakebites, fractures, and wounds.  

Let’s talk about some of the remedies based on superstitious. Whooping cough was “cured” by the father of the family placing the head of the sick child into a hole in a meadow. This was to be done for a few minutes at dusk. No other family member could be present or else the child would remain sick. Tuberculosis- Smoke dried cow dung through a hand pipe. Have a sore throat or a cough? Simmer salted pork in hot vinegar and let the meal cool. The pork is to be fastened around the neck of the patient with a red piece of flannel. If pork isn’t available, a dirty sock could be tied around the patient’s neck. If a baby was teething, there were many ways to ease the pain. Simply by hanging the foot of a mole around the baby’s neck. Or applying leeches behind the infants’ ears. And finally, cutting the gums with a lancet, allowing the teeth to come through easily. Patients sometimes got better when following these old wives tales. However, this was simply placebo effect. 

Here at Backus-Page House Museum we have a medicine bottle in the pantry with most of its label and contents. The bottle claims to be Snake Oil, used as an antiseptic which might reduce the possibility of infection. If you get the chance, come out and join us for a tour through the historic 1850s house and outbuildings! Including a tour through our Agricultural Centre featuring various antique farm equipment and tools.  

After learning a bit about health and medicine from the 1800s, aren’t you glad we’ve come so far? The life of a settler was extremely hard. Close to everything was done manually. Women, children, and men all worked tirelessly to survive, sickness spread easily, and cures were not reasonably effective. One thing I hope you take out of this episode is how grateful we should be for the advancements in scientific and medicinal research.