The Graveyard of Old Diseases

May 7, 2019

The global doubling of human life-expectancy—the most-important thing that ever happened—would not have been possible without dramatic improvements in nosology, the classification of human diseases. In 1850, medical diagnostics were rudimentary, autopsies were rare and reliable data scarce. The nosology created for the 1850 Mortality Census, then, was inevitably crude: 300,000 Americans were reported as having died in 170 ways, many of which we wouldn’t recognize and some of which weren’t even deadly. Abscess, canker, carbuncle, cramp, eruption, hemorrhoids, spasms, teething, tetter, thrush, and worms do not normally kill. More likely people died with these things not of them. Even so, what I find compelling about the 1850 nosology is not its medical accuracy but what it reveals about a people trying to discipline death to careful categories. Certainly some of the categories reveal more about the data collectors than their world. The independent listings for “menses, excess of” and “menses, suppression of” reveal a typically male preoccupation with, and misunderstanding of, female biology. Other categories, however, reveal something important about the nineteenth century—the fact, for instance, that many people were dying of simple vitamin deficiencies. In many cases, the deaths by black tongue, chlorosis, jaundice, rickets, scurvy, and perhaps even dirt-eating could have been cured with a simple multivitamin or a more steady, sensible diet. Categories like cancer, “heart, disease of,” and apoplexy (stroke or aneurism) map neatly to our own understanding of how people typically die. Other categories are so arcane that they need to be defined.


abscess  > An abscess, or a boil, is raised, swollen bump filled with puss. Found on both internal organs and external tissue, abscesses have multiple causes, including viral bacterial infections and as a side effect or symptom of numerous medical conditions. In the nineteenth century, typical treatments included poultices and lancing.

apoplexy  > Apoplexy is a stroke or brain aneurysm, which results in confusion, unconsciousness, and partial or total paralysis. According to nineteenth-century doctor Egbert Guernsey, the illness was most prevalent in women, older adults, and those with “a stout short body, large and short neck, corpulence, dark, red countenance.” A fit of apoplexy, he believed, could be induced by sudden temperature changes, excitement, alcohol abuse, drugs, or, in men, tight neckties. People having apoplectic attack were told to remove tight clothing, consume belladonna, and call for a physician. [1]

atrophy  > Atrophy is the degeneration of tissue, muscles, organs, or bones. As a broad category, it can refer to medical conditions as diverse as osteoporosis, heart disease, thyroid disease, or menopause. Resulting from aging, malnutrition, illness, disease, or other causes, atrophy usually progresses gradually and is not always life threatening. In the nineteenth-century, A Dictionary of Practical Medicine recommended that “vital energy” be restored to the atrophied body part by improved nutrition, tonic powders, or bleeding. In some instances, atrophy was considered a fatal condition while in other cases it was labeled a “natural” component of aging. [2]

black tongue  > Black Tongue, as the name implies, is a dark discoloration of the tongue, often indicative of typhoid or diphtheria. As a highly contagious infection, individuals with “Black Tongue” were regularly quarantined. According to the The American Journal Medical Sciences, treatment included nitrate silver and “as much brandy as the patient can digest.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black Tongue could also be a symptom of a fatal vitamin deficiency, commonly found among impoverished infants and children. Cattle, too, can also die of Black Tongue. [3]

canker  > Commonly found in infants and children, a canker is an oral ulcer or sore located on the lips or mouth, which can cause the gums to swell and recede from the teeth. Usually a minor complaint, nineteenth-century treatments included dabbing the canker with nitrate of silver, sulphate of copper, iodine, or, in persistent cases, mercury. Doctors advised nursing women who were experiencing recurring cankers to wean their child in order to obtain relief.

canker rash  > Canker rash is a form of scarlet fever with ulcerations or putrid sore throat. Considered more common among children than adults, William Andrus Alcott described the condition as “a very troublesome disease,” not infrequently fatal. “Physicians dread it almost as much as they do the small-pox.” Symptoms included chills, fever, sore throat, and a skin rash. Treatment included bed rest, “cooling drinks given freely,” “abstinence from animal food,” or a cold compress. [4]

carbuncle  > Carbuncles are a grouping of inflamed, puss-filled bumps on the skin, larger than a boil or abscess. According to A System of Surgery, a carbuncle, larger or equivalent in size to a human hand, usually formed on a patient’s neck, shoulders, back, or buttock. If caught early, nineteenth-century physicians lanced the carbuncle using a “tenotomy knife.” Infected carbuncles, however, often developed into gangrene, leading to amputation or death. [5]

catarrh  > Often a symptom of the common cold, hay fever, influenza, strep throat, or sinus infections, catarrh is the inflammation of the airways in the throat, nose, or mouth, causing an accumulation of mucus and phlegm. Originating from a Greek verb meaning “to flow down,” catarrh most often referred to the common cold in nineteenth-century America. According to Dr. Alfred Catherwood of London, temperature changes or cold spells did not, in fact, cause catarrh or the common cold; instead, he believed that "moisture with cold, miasma, noxious gases, and impalpable powders” were to blame. [6]

chlorosis  > Chlorosis, or the “green-sickness” as it was known in the nineteenth century, is anemia caused by iron deficiency. According to Homoeopathic Domestic Practice, chlorosis often occurred in adolescent girls, young women, or “occasionally in the young and delicate of the male sex.” Affecting the richest and poorest segments of society, Egbert Guernsey claimed, “servants, and especially cooks, are particularly liable to this disease, but the delicate and inert habits of the rich not less frequently lead to this affliction.” Indicated by paleness, brittle finger nails, swollen ankles, and irregular menstruation, those suffering from chlorosis were advised to eat a wholesome diet, get plenty of exercise, and take in some fresh sea air. [7]

chorea  > Chorea, or “Saint Vitus's Dance” as it was known in the nineteenth century, affects the nervous system, causing sudden, uncontrolled movement in the face and extremities. Today, chorea would be diagnosed as Huntington’s disease or another genetic neurological condition. In the 1840s, the London Medical Gazette reasoned “that the emotions of the mind affect the part of the brain which is most nearly connected with the points of implantation of the auditory and optic nerves.” [8]

croup  > Found in infants and children under the age of five, croup, also known as cynanche trachealis, is an infection that results in the swelling of the larynx and the obstruction the upper airways, causing shortness of breath or even suffocation. Indicated by raspy breathing and a cough that sounds similar to the barking of a dog or seal, the victim experiences violent, sporadic attacks of coughing and shortness of breath at night. In the nineteenth-century, severe cases resulted in death and, according to Homoeopathic Domestic Practice, “the mother who has watched with bitter agony the fearful struggles of her child, breathes a sigh of relief as the last breath is drawn, and as the look of anguish changes to the sweet calm of death, she knows that suffering is over, and her little one is at rest.” [9]

debility  > Debility indicates a temporary or chronic weakness of the body and is a symptom of various physical and mental illnesses. Often associated with vice or moral failure in the nineteenth-century, one moralist warned “Youth and Manhood” against debility, which could result from genetics, “overtaxed energies,” “objectionable habits,” “disease of impudence,” age, marriage, or “nervous” conditions. Claimed to be caused by modernity, this widespread disease reputedly affected “a majority of the human race” to one degree or another. [10]

dirt eating  > Now labeled as geophagia or pica, dirt eating is a symptom of anemia, internal parasites, vitamin imbalance, or mineral deficiency. Rather than ingesting just any type of dirt, Southerners consumed “white dirt,” which is actually kaolin, a chalky clay substance used in the manufacturing of paper and paint. In the 1860s, Austin Flint described dirt eating as “a morbid habit which prevails, to a considerable extent, among plantation negroes of the Southern States.” To prevent them from eating dirt, Flint recommended that slaves be chained to plank floors or gagged with iron or tin face masks. Poor white southerners also consumed dirt in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, according to an 1894 study, twenty-six percent of Dr. Sandwith patients confessed to “earth hunger.” [11]

dropsy  > Dropsy, swelling caused by a fluid buildup, is a symptom of kidney disease or congestive heart failure and can affect the lower exterminates, abdomen, or chest cavity. According to mid-nineteenth-century author Horatio Goodday, over half of deaths from dropsy could be prevented with “good air; suitable clothing, and shelter against excess of damp, cold, and heat; cleanliness, proper food; exercise; rest; and the right observance of the Sabbath.” Other medical treatments included aspis-mel, arsenicum, digitalis, hellebore, dulcamara, and crotalus. Cases of dropsy were often deadly and physicians recommended drawing out the fluid to relieve the patient’s suffering and prolong life.

erysipelas  > Erysipelas, also known as St. Anthony's Fire or Rose, is a bacterial skin infection, causing fever, redness, swelling, inflammation, and a burning sensation. In the nineteenth-century, doctors considered newborn infants, alcoholics, and menstruating women most susceptible to the condition. Treatments include bleeding, a vegetable-based diet, and fresh air as well as doses of aconite, belladonna, and rhus. In humans, erysipelas is not usually fatal though it is often fatal for pigs. [12]

bilious fever  > Bilious fever is an unspecified fever causing nausea and vomiting. In the nineteenth-century South, yellow fever and bilious fever often occurred in the same epidemics and were studied in tandem. According to Homoeopathic Domestic Practice “it is the endemial fever of warm climates, particularly where the soil is marshy, the country new, and the vegetation rich.” The South, especially the “very unhealthy” coastline of South Carolina, was considered breeding ground for bilious fever. Often deadly, treatment for bilious fever included the “water cure,” ipecac to induce vomiting, or aconite to reduce pain and inflammation. [13]

catarrhal fever  > Catarrhal fever is a viral disease causing sneezing, coughing, fever, and body aches; today it would be diagnosed as influenza. Thought to be caused by exposure to either damp or cold weather, Franz Hartmann recommended “rest by a very warm stove” and a dose of “nux,” arsenic, or “rhus.” Even in the nineteenth century, most individuals recovered from catarrhal fever within a few days or a week. [14]

ship fever > Ship Fever, or epidemic typhus, is a bacterial infection spread by lice and fleas. Common in crowded, unsanitary conditions, nineteenth-century ships proved the prefect breeding ground and, in 1850, Henry Grafton Clark reported that ship fever “has been seen on board emigrant ships, in the quarantine hospitals, and among emigrants newly arrived from Europe.” Expounding on the plight of the immigrant victim, Clark concludes “it is familiar in the hovels and ill-drained and ventilated house of the poor and wretched. It takes passages with the poor emigrant, who seeks out hospitable shore an asylum from his woes; it wastes his strength on the long passage, and at last, with its fiend-like gripe, thrusts him down into the deep and sorrowful ocean, or only spares him from this, that he may find but a 'hospitable grave' upon the shores of the country of his most ardent hopes and expectations.” Treatment included cleanliness, ventilation, “Dover’s Powder” and a dose of camphor, spirit of nitrate, or “liquor ammoniae acetatis.” According to nineteenth-century doctors, those who recovered from ship fever often experienced delirious episodes during the course of the illness. [15]

fistula  > A fistula is an abnormal connection between two epithelialized surfaces, such as veins, nose, ear, liver, intestines, rectum, urinary track, and female reproductive organs. Aggravated by repeated pregnancies and forceps deliveries, nineteenth-century women suffered from vesico-vaginal fistulas. Men more commonly had anal fistulas. Usually fistulas were minor complaints and patients, as a form of treatment, received a probe up the affected body part, ingested a laxative, applied zinc ointment, or, in more extreme cases, surgery. [16]

fluor albus  > Fluor albus, or leucorrhcea, is a white, milky discharge from the vagina, indicative of normal hormonal changes or infection. According to Egbert Guernsey’s Homoeopathic Domestic Practice, the condition was caused by the suppression of menstruation, constipation, childbirth, the “free use of tea and coffee,” “excessive sexual indulgence,” and “frequent child-bearing.” Upper-class women, “mind excited by the luxuries and stimulants of the table, the excitements of the ball-room or theatre, and the glowing and sometimes impure pages of a certain class of fiction,” were deemed particularly susceptible to fluor albus. Treatment included daily exercise, ingesting zinc sulphate or nitrate of silver, and injecting cold water up the vagina. [17]

gout  > Typically a non-life threatening complaint, gout is a form of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joints. According to Dr. William Harvey, gout is “the inheritance of those past the middle age” and was caused “from excess of good living, sedentary habits, [and] mental occupations.” The disease was similar to rheumatism but often more acute and more likely to affect smaller joins. “Apply . . . thumbscrew to the thumb, and turn it until the pain is as severe as can possibly be endured, and that is rheumatism. Now give it one more turn, and you have gout,” claims a “gentleman” in Homoeopathic Domestic Practice. [18]

hemorrhoids  > Hemorrhoids, also known as piles, are enlarged, swollen veins in the anus and rectum, which cause bleeding. Even in the nineteenth century, individuals did not actually die from hemorrhoids, but the diagnosis occasionally appears as the listed cause of death on death certificates. As doctors noted in The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine “individuals affected with hemorrhoids die usually of some other complaint, which, being urgent and prominent. . . . engrosses the attention during life and at the post-mortem examination.” [19]

hives  > Hives, also referred to as cynanche trachealis during the nineteenth century, is a sink rash, resulting in itchy, red or pale-colored welts upon the body. Although commonly considered a cause of death among nineteenth-century infants and children, hives was, in fact, a symptom of other, fatal illnesses, such as coup. [20]

whooping cough  > Whooping cough, known as pertussis in the twenty-first century, is a respiratory-tract infection that causes fever, headache, congestion, and a violent, whoop-like cough. Girls were considered more susceptible to whooping cough than boys in the nineteenth-century. During coughing attacks, children were said to experience “great anguish and restlessness." Whooping cough was considered potentially fatal if it lasted longer than four weeks. [21]

hydrocephalus > Often effecting infants and children, hydrocephalus, or “water-stroke,” is the accumulation of fluid deep within the brain. Symptoms included headache, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and, in the final stages of the disease, convulsion, unconsciousness, and death. Treatments included cold compresses to the head and a dose of aconite or belladonna. Extremely deadly in the nineteenth century, hydrocephalus "kills more than recovers." [22]

hydrophobia > Hydrophobia is rabies. After being bitten by an infected animal, the patient gradually, over a period of weeks or months, develops inflammation near the bite, an open wound, chest pain, heart burn, excess saliva secretion, and stiffness in the neck and throat. According to Homoeopathic Domestic Practice, the patient then developed a haggard appearance with “sunken, but still brilliant” eyes and “delirium of a wandering or violent character” and a “constant inclination to bite.” Hydrophobia was “one of the most fearful and agonizing diseases on record, and what adds still more to the terror inspired by its name, but very little success has as yet been met with, in its treatment.” In most all cases, hydrophobia resulted in death, “a welcome messenger to relieve the poor victim of his tortures.” [23]

influenza  > Influenza, or catarrhal fever as it was also known during the nineteenth century, is a viral disease causing sneezing, coughing, fever, and body aches. According to Dr. Thomas Harrison Yeoman, patients’ “spirits are depressed almost to a state of melancholy; the mind wanders from every agreeable or social idea; . . .the temper is irritable, peevish, and discontented, and the invalid cares only to wrap himself up in his own misery, and the warmest blanket he can find.” In the nineteenth-century, treatment included a nourishing diet as well as a dose of camphor, arsenic, or mercury. Most individuals recovered from influenza within a few weeks, but bad cases could turn fatal. [24]

intemperance  > Intemperance is a lack of restraint and moderation and, in the nineteenth century, most often applied to alcoholics or drunkards. Considered a sin and moral failing for most of the nineteenth century, intemperates, Heman Humphrey declared in 1813, were traveling “the high road to hell.” More than just a medical condition, nineteenth-century reformers declared intemperance a social ill contributing to social violence, divorce, poverty, and suicide. Treatment for intemperance varied considerably and patients, especially those institutionalized as a result of their condition, were recommended to attend church, pray, abstain from hard liquor and stick to wine or ale. [25]

jaundice  > Caused by an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream, jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes that affects infants, children, and adults. It can be a symptom of numerous medical conditions, including liver failure, gallbladder problems, pancreatic cancer, alcoholism, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, or snake bite. Jaundice rarely kills, but in the nineteenth century, jaundice could be listed as a cause of death. In these cases, it is more likely that jaundice was a symptom of a fatal illness rather than the actual cause of death.

leprosy  > Referred to as “Hansen's Disease” in the twenty-first century, leprosy is a long-term bacterial infection that causes disfiguring sores and nerve damage. Today the disease is treatable, but there was no cure during the nineteenth century. According to the New York Medical Journal, leprosy was extremely contagious and “the whole history of leprosy . . . marks it as a disease that had propagated itself by human intercourse, and has extended its ravages as its human vehicle, man, had carried it from one land to another.” Doctors recommended quarantine, outdoor exercise, and fresh air. In the nineteenth and twenty centuries, a leper colony existed in Hawaii on the island of Kalaupapa. [26]

malformation  > Malformation is bodily disfigurement and can affect any body part, including, but not limited to, ears, toes, fingers, limbs, rectum, anus, or reproductive organs. In the nineteenth century, these cases could be caused by an accident, but were more likely the result of birth defect or genetic condition. The severity and treatment depended upon the body part affected. For example, cases of rectum or anus malformation most often occurred in men, were treated by lancing the afflicted area, and often proved fatal. On the other end of the spectrum, toe or foot malformations caused disfigurement but rarely death. [27]

mania-a-potu > Mania-a-potu, also known as “mania from drink,” “Brain Fever of Drunkards,” or "delirium tremens," is mental illness resulting from alcohol consumption. Today, the condition would be simply labeled as alcoholism or alcohol withdrawal. According to the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, symptoms include “mania,” a period of delirium after consuming alcohol or a strong desire for drink. According to Samuel Henry Dickson, mania-a-potu begins with a craving for alcohol, vomiting, irregular bowel movements, and “fetid breath.” In its final stages “the patient wanders; he mutters incoherently, and with incessant restlessness; or if he sinks exhausted into a brief and unquiet slumbers, starts from it in terror with cannot be soothed.” Edgar Allen Poe described the condition as a ten-day period of “hallucination, arising from an attack,” during which he endured “horrible unspeakable torments.” The Elements of Medicine claimed that men in this condition had a predisposition toward suicide. [28]

marasmus > Typically occurring in infants and young children, marasmus is malnutrition, resulting in emaciation, and can be either an independent cause of death or a symptom of another fatal disease. Patients lose their desire for food, vomit after eating, “waste away,” and die. In the nineteenth century, symptoms could be relieved with nourishing soup, wine, or “vegetable tonics,” but doctors could not “cure the disease, for it is the natural disease of death.” [29]

excess of menses  > Excess of menses, known as menorrhagia in the twenty-first century, is a hormonal imbalance causing prolonged menstruation or heavy bleeding. According to On the Treatment of Diseases of the Skin, excess of menses was caused by “disease of the sexual organs,” “unaccustomed stimulus,” or “excess” intercourse. The recommended treatment was abstaining from sexual activity for “a season” and then having “moderate use of it.” Treatment was “imperfectly accomplished” if the “marriage is sterile, and especially those in which, from disparity of year or from constitution feebleness on the husband's part, the act is but imperfectly accomplished.” Nineteenth-century prostitutes experienced the condition because of “constant over-excitement of their sexual organs.” [30]

suppression of menses  > Suppression of menses, known as amenorrhea or Gn Rit agonists in the twenty-first century, is caused by a hormonal imbalance, pregnancy, or the onset on menopause. After several months of suppression, women were pale, “enfeebled" and have "a train of nervous symptoms." According to On the Diseases Peculiar to Females, sudden suppression of menstruation was caused by exposure to cold, dampness, or a "great anxiety of mind, and sudden fright." Treatment included wine, colocynth and calomel pills, "Dover's powder," laudanum, bleeding, and an abdominal compress of "warm poppy heads." In the nineteenth century, suppression of menses appeared as a cause of death. [31]

mercury poisoning  > Considered toxic to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, mercury causes tremors, mouth sores, loss of peripheral visions, swollen gums, muscle weakness, speech impediments, memory problems, loss of movement, and death. Often proscribed in small doses as a medication in the nineteenth century, mercury was a readily available substance that was considered beneficial to healing. Mild symptoms of the disease included trouble swallowing and a metallic taste. According to A Treatise on Therapeutics, those with extreme cases of excess mercury poisoning experienced the loosening of the teeth, gangrene, mouth hemorrhages, and "in not a few instances, death had taken place, or recover has been attended with revolting or very inconvenient deformity.” [32]

milk sickness  > Today considered an extremely rare form of food poisoning, milk sickness was caused by drinking the milk of a cow that had ingested white snakeroot. In the early 1800s, the condition was known as a “mysterious disease” or “Sick-stomach” and was extremely fatal. Often an epidemic affecting southern and western communities, numerous rural families would fall ill around the same time. According to A Kentucky Sampler, symptoms included nausea, dizziness, vomiting, swollen tongue, and, right before death, “a pronounced odor on the breath and in the urine.” Treatment typically include opium, brandy, charcoal, strychnine, or blood-letting. Only in the late 1910s and early 1920s, did doctors realize that white snakeroot caused milk sickness. [33]

mortification  > Mortification, a decaying, degeneration of a body part, is a symptom of gangrene or an unspecified infection. Often occurring after an injury, surgery, or frostbite, mortification caused the afflicted limb “to become quite cold” and turn “a brown, livid or black color” as “the scarf-skin is raised up in little tumors from the gas which is disengaged by the decomposing flesh; a very offensive odor is emitted.” In the nineteenth-century, the only treatment option was often amputation, which may prolong life or may induce shock and death. [34]

neuralgia  > Also known as “tic douloureux,” neuralgia is a stabbing or burning pain along a nerve and is a symptom of aging, multiple sclerosis, cancer, shingles, or an infection. According to Godey's Magazine, the pain was a “plunging, darting pain of the most intensive and agonizing kind.” Causes of the illness included exposure to dampness or cold and “in this way, railway travelling has proved a fertile source of neuralgic affliction.” Treatment included a warm compress, “removal . . . to a dry, warm air” or a dose of chloroform, carbonate of iron, or croton-oil. Once afflicted with neuralgia, patients were considered more susceptible to other conditions, including stomach disorders and "anxiety of [the] mind.”[35]

onanism  > Onanism, masturbation or ejaculation outside of a vagina, was considered an illness or moral failing in nineteenth-century America. According to the Old Testament, Onan withdrew his penis prior to ejaculation and “spilled his seed on the ground;” this condition was named after the “Sin of Onan.” In the mid-nineteenth century, it was considered hard to cure and Dr. John Hilton knew “of no way to prevent onanism except by freely blistering the penis, in order to make it raw and so sore that it cannot be touched without pain.” Mocking this medical condition, Mark Twain’s “Thoughts on the Science of Onanism” concluded: “If you must gamble away your lives sexually, don’t play a lone hand too much. When you feel a revolutionary uprising in your system, get your Vendome Column down some other way – don’t jerk it down.” [36]

paramenia  > Paramenia is irregular or abnormal menstruation. For women over the age of fifty, paramenia usually indicated the continuation of menstruation and a delayed onset of menopause. For women under the age of fifty, paramenia indicated irregular menstruation of amenorrhea, which frequently occurred after pregnancy and childbirth. According to Doctor John Mason Good, treatment included laxatives, epsom salts, cold compresses, opiates, or bloodletting. [37]

peritonitis  > An inflammatory condition, peritonitis affects the lining of the abdominal wall, intestines, uterus, or other abdominal organs. In the nineteenth century, peritonitis could be a symptom of cancer, tuberculosis, kidney failure, pancreatitis, stomach ulcer, ruptured appendix, or a gastrointestinal condition. Labeled a “disease peculiar to women,” peritonitis of the uterus was considered a commonality in “laying-in hospitals” during the 1840s. Regardless of the organ affected, however, treatment included opium and morphine; peritonitis was usually fatal. [38]

pleurisy  > Pleurisy, or inflammation of chest and lung tissue, is a symptom of influenza, pneumonia, cancer, tuberculosis, heart failure, or blood clot in the lungs. In addition to chest pain and a dry cough, the patient experienced flushing, chills, fever, and a rapid pulse. According to Homoeopathic Domestic Practice, pleurisy was commonly caused by “exposure to cold and dampness” and could be treated with aconite and bryonia." Most recovered from pleurisy. Indeed, Dr. Austin Flint determined that is fatal in “only a small proportion of cases” during the 1850s. [39]

puerperal fever  > Puerperal fever, or "Child-Bed Fever," is caused by an infection of the uterus. Today this condition is diagnosed as maternal sepsis. Occurring during or after delivery, women experienced fever, a rapid pulse, thirst, and radiating pain in the abdomen. Published in 1856, Egbert Guernsey’s Homoeopathic Domestic Practice considered puerperal fever “the dread of mothers.” Considered a serious and often fatal condition, medical advice recommended that a physician “be consulted without delay, for if allowed to go on, it may gain a fearful ascendency.” Once obtaining a physician, treatment included a dose of aconite alternated with bryonia or belladonna. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, doctors considered puerperal fever the most lethal in January-March births. [40]

putrid sore throat  > Known in the twenty-first century as strep throat or diphtheria, putrid sore throat is a bacterial infection of the tonsils or mucous membranes. Also referred to as malignant sore throat or ulcerous sore throat, putrid sore throat produced cankers, sores, and abscesses around the throat or mouth. Beach's American Practice Condensed claimed that it was caused by infection, cold, or “neglect of cleanliness, unwholesome air, [or] damaged provisions.” Treatments included bleeding, mercury, ligament, wine, a mixture of yeast and milk, or a poultice of plaster or resin and “brown soap.” [41]

quinsy  > Quinsy, or peritonsillar abscess, is a bacterial infection causing inflation behind the tonsils. In the nineteenth century quinsy could be a symptom of a sore throat, common cold, tonsillitis, or paristhmitis. According to The London Lancet the word 'quinsy' is of somewhat uncertain application, and that it is probably used to express more than once complaint.” Treatment included chlorate of potash, poultices, inhaling warm steam, beef-tea, and drinking “small quantities of wine or brandy every four hours.” Presumed to be caused by exposure to cold or “insanitary conditions in dwelling house” cases appeared “in groups, and two or three cases are often known to occur at once, or successively, in badly drained and ventilated houses.” [42]

rickets  > Typically caused by a Vitamin D deficiency, rickets is the weakening of children’s bones. Described by Dr. Eustace Smith as "one of the most preventable" but common children's illness, rickets caused deformities of the skull, bowed legs, curvature of the spine, bodily malformation, developmental delays, and, in some cases, death. Differing from a healthy child, “a rickety child is only happy when at rest. . . to look at him we are irresistiblely reminded of the other term of life, for he appears to have anticipated at least once consequence of the weight of years, and to have combined the patient endurance of old age with the face and figure of a child.” In order to prevent or treat rickets, nineteenth-century doctors recommended a healthy diet, fresh air, plenty of cow’s milk, bodily cleanliness, and a flannel dressing across the abdomen. [43]

scrofula  > Scrofula, also known as the “King’s Evil,” is a tubercular, bacterial infection of the lymphatic glands. In Europe, from 1003 to 1825, the touch a British or French monarch was thought to cure scrofula and kings and queens held large ceremonies in which they touched those afflicted with the disease. By the mid-nineteenth century, doctors considered scrofula the "Parent of diseases,” since they believed the condition could affect any body part or organ and often misdiagnosed rickets, rachitis, white swelling, consumption, and ulcers as scrofula. In 1856, Egbert Guernsey though that those with a “tuberculous constitution”— described as having a “large   head, short, thick neck, light hair, fair   skin   and rosy cheeks, generally blue   eyes   and large pupils” and a “full and rounded, but . . . soft and flabby” form—were especially susceptible to the condition. According to Gurnesy, scrofula was caused by vaccinations, damp air, cold air, meals, small pox, medication, “eating heavy indigestible   food in the first years of infancy,” or “nursing from a scrofulous or syphilitic nurse.” [44]

scurvy  > Scurvy, produced by a vitamin C deficiency, can cause anemia, exhaustion, bleeding, bodily soreness, swelling in the extremities, mouth ulcerates, receding gums, and the loosening of the teeth. Discovered by 1753 by James Lind, a British naval surgeon, scurvy was associated with sailors, soldiers, paupers, prisoners, and residents of lunatic asylums. To prevent or treat scurvy, nineteenth-century doctors recommended the consumption of fruits, vegetables, citrus, lemon juice, and, especially, potatoes. Medical treatments included mercury, arsenic, sulphur, and nux. [45]

teething  > Occurring in infants between four to seven months of age, teething produces a mild temperature as well as swollen and inflamed gums. In the nineteenth-century, “the period of teething is the most critical of childhood,” according to A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Children. Teething infants often experienced vomiting, fever, diarrhea, bleeding of the mouth, and an "irritated state of some of the organs.” Treatment included cold water and allowing the child to chew on coral, ivory, or gum elastic. Although considered a minor ailment or inconvenience today, teething could be deadly in the mid-nineteenth century. [46]

tetanus  > Tetanus, or lockjaw, is a bacterial infection that enters the body through an open wound. According to Homoeopathic Domestic Practice, the illness could be caused by a splinter, a blow on the back, a fever, “suppressed menstruation,” or a “violent exertion of the mind and body.” The afflicted patient experienced a tightening in the head and neck, a difficulty opening the mouth, and, then, a clenching of the jaw. Gradually, all of the voluntary muscles in the body tightened and demobilized. Regardless of the treatment, the disease was most often fatal. [47]

tetter  > Tetter is a skin condition causing redness and vesicular outbreaks; it can be a symptom of acne, herpes, eczema, psoriasis, lupus, ringworm, or shingles. According to John W. Comfort, “every variety of tetter may be produced by constitutional disorder, and as a general rule it is brought on by derangement in the system” Treatment included, “a liberal use of purified charcoal,” bitter tea, nightly lobelia pills,   a bland bread-based diet, outdoors exercise after meals, and “a change of residence from one part of the county to another, or from the city to the country.” [48]

thrush  > Often occurring in infants and children, thrush is a fungal infection of the mouth mucus membrane, which causes white spots and mouth ulcers. Egbert Guernsey claimed that thrush was caused by a “constitutional taint,” poor diet, or “in those who are fed with the bottle or spoon.” Treatment in mild cases included a mixture of borax, “loaf sugar,” and water. In more severe cases, doctors recommended powered mercury or sulphur. [49]

venereal disease  > A sexually transmitted disease, the most common venereal diseases were syphilis and gonorrhea during the nineteenth century. According to the Report on the Extent of Venereal Disease, “no diseases of a preventable character cause[s] greater evils among society at present in this country than these do.” In London's St. Bartholomew's Hospital half of the out-patient cases were a result of venereal diseases. With few hospital or workhouse beds available for these patients, British prostitutes, who were “suffering from these diseases,” struggled to gain admittance and “being rejected, are forced to go on with their trade in order to live.” The cause of venereal disease eluded nineteenth-century doctors, and Dr. Philippe Ricord believed “the venereal virus to be small living worms which produce eggs by copulation, and which, like other insects, can readily multiply. . . these venereal worms engender others, and thus we may suppose that the syphilitic virus is propagated.” Supposed to have originated in the West Indies, doctors assumed that the disease passed to French military men through intercourse with indigenous women and then on to the rest of the world. [50]

white swelling > White swelling, known as bone tuberculosis or Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is a tubercular, bacterial infection of the bones, causing swelling, stiffness, and fluid accumulation in the joints, especially in the knees or hips. Most often occurring at middle-age or in children, nineteenth-century treatment for white swelling included a liniment containing hemlock oil, croton oil, and tincture of iodine. In advanced cases, doctors recommended splints and bed rest. In the nineteenth century, white swelling could also be wrongly labeled as scrofula. [51]

worms > A symptom rather than an actual cause of death, worms indicated an illness in which parasites were found in the faeces. Believing that worms occurred most in young children and “sickly adults,” William Potts Dewees described the condition as “producing emancipation, a swelled hard belly, gnawing or pungent pain in the stomach, pale countenance, fetid breath, and irritation of the nostrils.” Other symptoms could include coughing, headache, bowel irregularities, vomiting, or unusual food cravings. Treatment for worms varied considerably depending on the other symptoms and could include exercise, a diet of meat broth, or a dose of aconite, ignatia, chia, spigelia, belladonna, mercury, nux, or sulphur. [52]

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  2. James Copland, A Dictionary of Practical Medicine(New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1855), 198-199.

  3. Isaac Hays, ed., The American Journal of the Medical Sciences: The Official Journal of the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation: An International Journal of Biomedical Research, Volume 41 (New York: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1861), 895.

  4. William Andrus Alcott, The Mother's Medical Guide in Children's Diseases (Boston: T.R. Marvin, 1845), 202.

  5. The London Lancet: A Journal of British and Foreign Medical and Chemical Science, Criticism, Literature and News, Volume 2 (London: Burgess, Stringer & Company, 1865), 455; Maximilian Joseph Chelius, A System of Surgery, Volume 1, John F. South, trans., (London: Henry Renshaw, 1847), 135-136.

  6. The Monthly Review, September to December Inclusive (London: Hurst, Robinson, 1841), 282.

  7. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  8. London Medical Gazette: Or, Journal of Practical Medicine, Volume 43 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1849), 727.

  9. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  10. Seven Causes of Debility, Or Debilitating and Nervous Diseases; Their Causes, Symptoms, Consequences and Treatment: A Warning Voice to Youth and Manhood (New York, 1878).

  11. “The Old And Mysterious Practice Of Eating Dirt, Revealed,” NPR (April 2, 2014): (accessed October 26, 2017); Austin Flint, A Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine (Philadelphia: Henry C Lea, 1866), 376-377; C.H. Wardell Stiles, Bulletin of the Hygienic Laboratory (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903), 76.

  12. Samuel Cooper, A Dictionary of Practical Surgery: Comprehending All the Most Interesting Improvements, from the Earliest Times Down to the Present Period (London: Longman, Orm, & Co, 1838); Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  13. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856); Tomlinson Fort, M.D., “Bilious Fever Districts of Country at the South” in Boston Medical Surgery Journal (November 15, 1848).

  14. Franz Hartmann, Practical Observations on Some of the Chief Homoeopathic Remedies, Volumes 1-2 (New York: Wm. Radde, 1846), 99.

  15. Henry Grafton Clark, Ship Fever, so called; Its History, Nature, and Best Treatment (Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850), 1, 7, 40-41.

  16. William Allingham Fistula, Hemorrhoids, Painful Ulcer, Stricture, Prolapsus, and Other Diseases of the Rectum: Their Diagnosis and Treatment (London: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1873).

  17. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  18. William Harvey, On Rheumatism, Gout, and Neuralgic Headache; in Relation to Deafness, Noises in the Ear, Volume 6 (London: Henry Renshaw, 1860), 39; Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice..

  19. Sir John Forbes, Alexander Tweedie, and John Conolly, The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine: Comprising Treatises on the Nature and Treatment of Diseases, Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Medical Jurisprudence, Volume 2 (Philadelphia; Lea and Blanchard, 1845), 438.

  20. "Glossary of Ancient Diseases," Olive Tree Genealogy (accessed May 7, 2019).

  21. Bernhard Baehr, The Science of Therapeutics: According to the Principles of Homoeopathy, Volume 2 (New York: Boericke & Tafel, 1869), 194.

  22. John J. Meylor, Watson Abridged (Philadelphia: J. J. Meylor, 1867), 66.

  23. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  24. Thomas Harrison Yeoman, Catarrh, Influenza, Bronchitis, and Asthma: their Causes Symptoms, and Rational Treatment (London: Sampson Low, 1849), 31.

  25. Heman Humphrey, Intemperance: An Address, to the Churches and Congregations of the Western District of Fairfield County (Hartford: Peter B Gleason, & Co., 1813), 19.

  26. Frank P. Foster, ed. New York Medical Journal (New York: D. Appleton, & Company., 1882), 220.

  27. Thomas John Ashton, On the Diseases, Injuries, and Malformations of the Rectum and Anus (London: John Churchill, 1857), 368-369.

  28. J. S. Jewell and H. M. Bannister, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (Chicago: Williams & Wilkins, 1875), 102; Samuel Henry Dickson, Elements of Medicine (Blanchard and Lea, 1859), 664; Edgar Allan Poe to Maria Clemm — July 19, 1849 (LTR-327), Correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland.

  29. George Edward Day, A Practical Treatise on the Domestic Management and Most Important Diseases of Advanced Life: With an Appendix, Containing a Series of Cases Illustrative of a New and Successful Mode of Treating Lumbago and Other Forms of Chronic Rheumatism, Sciatica and Other Neuralgic Affections, and Certain Forms of Paralysis (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849), 65.

  30. Charles West, M. P. Guersant, and McCall Anderson, On the Treatment of Diseases of the Skin: With an Analysis of Eleven Thousand Consecutive Cases (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1857), 56.

  31. Thomas John Graham, On the Diseases Peculiar to Females (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1845), 69-72.

  32. George Bacon Wood, A Treatise on Therapeutics, and Pharmacology, or Materia Media, Volume 2 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1860), 239.

  33. Lowell H. Harrison and Nelson L. Dawson, eds. A Kentucky Sampler: Essays from The Filson Club History Quarterly 1926-1976 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 157-163.

  34. Charles Hawkins, eds. The Works of Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1865), 345-349; Keith Imray, A Popular Cyclopedia of Modern Domestic Medicine: Comprising Every Recent Improvement in Medical Knowledge, with a Plain Account of the Medicines in Common Use (New York: Gates, Stedman and Company, 1850), 518.

  35. Godey's Magazine, Vols. 90-91 (1875), 380.

  36. John Hilton, “On the Treatment of Onanism” in The Retrospect of Practical Medicine and Surgery: Being a Half-yearly Journal Containing a Retrospective View of Every Discovery and Practical Improvement in the Medical Sciences (W. A. Townsend Publishing Company, 1864), 106; Mark Twain, “Thoughts on the Science of Onanism.”

  37. John Mason Good, The Study of Medicine: In Four Volumes, Volume 4 (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1822).

  38. Fleetwood Churchill, ed. Essays on the Puerperal Fever and other Diseases Peculiar to Women (London: Sydenham Society, 1849), 32; Austin Flint, A Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Medicine: Designed for the Use of Practitioners and Students of Medicine (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1866), 450.

  39. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856); Austin Flint, Clinical Report on Chronic Pleurisy (Buffalo: Jewett, Thomas & Company, 1853), 30.

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  41. W. Beach, Beach's American Practice Condensed; Or, The Family Physician: Being the Scientific System of Medicine on Vegetable Principles, Designed for All Classes (Boston: B. B. Mussey & Co., 1854), 295-296.

  42. Henry J. Bennett and T. Wakley, eds. The London Lancet: A Journal of British and Foreign Medical and Chemical Science, Criticism, Literature and News (London: Burgess, Stringer & Company, 1867), 382.

  43. Eustace Smith, On the Wasting Diseases of Infants and Children (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1870), 86.

  44. F. Barlow, `The King's Evil', The English Historical Review, 95/374 (January 1980); Egbert Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  45. William Baly, “In the Prevention of Scurvy, in prisons, pauper lunatic asylums, &c” in London Medical Gazette (February 10, 1843); Egbert Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  46. James Stewart, A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Children (New York: Wiley & Putam), 157.

  47. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  48. John W. Comfort, The Practice of Medicine on Thomsonian Principles (Philadelphia: A. Comfort, 1850), 8.

  49. Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

  50. Association for Promoting the Extension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, Report on the extent of Venereal Disease, Volume 1 (London: H. Baillièe, 1868), 22; Philippe Ricord, A Practical Treatise on Venereal Diseases. A. S. Doane, trans. (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1848), 41.

  51. William Paine, A Treatise on the Principles and Practice of Medicine and Pathology, Diseases of Women and Children, and Medical Surgery (Philadelphia: University Publishing Society, 1866), 859-860.

  52. William Potts Dewees, A Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1842), 485; Egbert Guernsey, Homoeopathic Domestic Practice (New York: William Radde, 1856).

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