Sunday, 5 January 2014

The terror of disease

Laid low by a cold over the Christmas period my thoughts turned to our ancestors and their experiences of illness.

The list of 19th century childhood diseases, often fatal, and from which we are largely protected these days - measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and mumps - was little different from that of the mid 17th century. Disease diagnosis might have been more accurate but little progress had been made in its cure.

The 18th century had seen a surge in the setting up of charitable hospitals, such as Guys and The London but they relied entirely on charitable donations and although they had the capacity to accommodate many patients, by Victorian times few had the funding for the nurses to tend to them. Consequently beds lay empty, even though they were sorely needed.

Meanwhile, newspaper advertisements offered their own solutions. A colourless and tasteless liquid called Glykaline claimed, in 1872, that if taken quarter hourly, it would "do away with the most obstinate of colds".

Remedies for children's ailments, with names such as Dr Seth Arnold's Cough Killer and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup for teething problems, might have appeared to have beneficial effects but that was more to do with the morphine contained in the mixture. Dr Seth's even claimed to cure a range of diseases including malaria and pneumonia.

Infantile diarrhoea killed many babies before their first birthday in 19th century London. Typhus arrived with the Irish fleeing famine from the loss of the potato crop. Influenza, pneumonia and the ubiquitous 'consumption' killed young and old alike. 

A common prejudice associated with consumption implied its contraction was linked to a sinful way of life. Far better to die of bronchitis, which was considered much more gentile.

My husband's ancestor, Walter Banner Viner died of bronchitis, following a bout of influenza in 1917, exactly one year before the great pandemic of 1918, during which, more than 50 million people worldwide, (some say closer to 100 million) would die of the virus.

With many doctors and nurses still away at the front in the early months, and those at home dealing with the many thousands of injured and shell-shocked soldiers, people turned to their own tried and trusted household remedies for cures. As well as the popular cure-all tot of whisky, they included vinegar, rhubarb and treacle. The medical profession veered from recommending abstinence from alcohol to embracing it. As well as those tots of whisky, glasses of port or wine were suggested, along with a hot bath.

And on that thought, I shall now go and raise a glass of something and wish you all a Happy and Healthy 2014!

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