Today we are hearing from novelist Amanda Cabot as she shares what she learned researching her books.
Nineteenth Century Healthcare
I doubt they called it ‘healthcare’ then – that sounds late twentieth-century to me – but there’s no doubt that people who lived during the nineteenth century needed doctors and other medical practitioners. (They probably didn’t use that term, either.) That’s one of the reasons I decided Elizabeth, the heroine of With Autumn’s Return would be a doctor. That decision turned into a good news/ bad news story. The good news was that Elizabeth’s profession gave me the opportunity to research medicine in the nineteenth century. The bad news was, I uncovered far more interesting details than I could include in the book. I’d like to share a few with you today.
Let’s start with the vocabulary of the era. Can you define seam squirrel, thunder mug and White Plague? If you guessed lice in mattresses, chamber pot and tuberculosis (or as it was often called, consumption), you get a gold star.
Next, let’s talk about pioneer ailments. Thanks to a poor diet and dehydration, the latter being a definite problem in the arid West with its low humidity and lack of potable water sources, dyspepsia and constipation were common. Did the word ‘dyspepsia’ stump you? It’s simply the old-fashioned term for indigestion.
Deaths were caused by accidents, drowning and gunshot wounds more often than illnesses. Of course, there was no shortage of maladies including typhoid, yellow fever, diphtheria, malaria, measles, cholera and dysentery. As you may have guessed, cancer and heart disease were rare because of the short life span.
How did pioneers deal with all those ailments? Those who lived in towns large enough to support a doctor had the sometimes dubious advantage of professional care. The reason I qualified my statement is that many doctors on the frontier were still practicing what was called “heroic medicine”: inducing bleeding, purging, vomiting, sweating and blistering. When I read about those techniques, I wasn’t surprised at the short life span. The cure sounded worse than the illness.
Those without access to trained doctors might have relied on quacks. Did you know that the term “quack” is an abbreviation of quacksalver? The name came from the people who sold various salves, all promising to cure every imaginable ailment. Their claims were delivered with such rapidity that onlookers claimed the salesmen sounded like ducks quacking.
It wasn’t only the quacks who promoted the use of patent medicines. The alleged benefits of patent medicines were touted in newspaper advertisements and by the stores that sold the bottled panaceas. Selling from one to five dollars a bottle, such concoctions as Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters and the well-known Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound claimed that they cured everything from pneumonia and kidney disease to “female complaints and weaknesses.” The latter is a quote from the Lydia Pinkham’s label. Although the secondary ingredients varied, the primary ingredient of the major patent medicines was alcohol. Lydia Pinkham’s had a mere 15% alcohol content, while Hostetter’s contained between 44 and 45% alcohol. To put this in context, the percentage of alcohol in beer ranges from 3 to 10, while wines are 8 to14. Hochstetter’s was the equivalent of modern whiskey, vodka and rum. Having read this, you won’t be surprised to learn that the use of patent medicines could easily become addictive.
Not everyone had access to or could afford patent medicines, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t self-medicate. Sassafras bark, frequently made into tea, was used to cleanse or thin the blood. Similarly, sarsaparilla was used to purify blood and as a general tonic. Laudanum served as a cough suppressant. Considering that it’s an opium derivative, it’s not surprising that its use also became addictive.
What impressed me the most as I did the research was not that people had considerably shorter life spans than we enjoy now but that they lived as long as they did. No doubt about it: they were strong. I for one am glad that I never had to rely on nineteenth century cures. What about you?
From the time that she was seven, Amanda Cabot dreamed of becoming a published author, but it was only when she set herself the goal of selling a book by her thirtieth birthday that the dream came true. A former director of Information Technology, Amanda has written everything from technical books and articles for IT professionals to mysteries for teenagers and romances for all ages. She’s delighted to now be a fulltime writer of Christian historical romances. Her Texas Dreams trilogy received critical acclaim; Christmas Roses was a CBA bestseller; and a number of her books have been finalists for national awards, including ACFW’s Carol award.