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Old Time Customs
Memories and Traditions and Other Essays
Disease and Remedy


THIS PHASE of The Old Times, though delayed so long, is by no means the least important. Indeed, it seems remarkable that old ideas of disease and their treatment, now considered so antiquated and unreasonable, should have so long maintained their hold and come down so near to our own day. The distinguished Dr. Osler says that within the past three centuries the average working life of English speaking men has doubled. "A few," he says, "lived as long as now, and some strong and favored ones had efficient working powers as long; but the common life was worn out in what is now middle age. In Shakespeare's time the 50's were venerable. Now when we hear of a death in the 60's we instinctively feel it an untimely cutting off in what should be still fresh and vigorous age, and even at 80, it seems but just fair ripeness for the sickle." When one looks closely into the character of medical treatment to which our more immediate ancestors were subjected, one would suppose that Dr. Osler might venture to cut off a century or two from his time limit.

A recent historian of the United States, in speaking of the death of George Washington, which occurred in 1798, states it in this way:—"George Washington was dead. The great man had been ailing but a few days. A ride in the wet had brought on an inflammation of the windpipe and a disorder which would now be called edema. Bad blood was then believed to be the cause of most maladies and bleeding a sure cure. This remedy was vigorously applied to Washington, and the patient was speedily bled to death. He died in his 68th year and in the hey day of his glory and his fame." The doctors cured the disease and they killed their President "The Father of His Country."

Already, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were gleams of light in the eastern horizon, extending over from the preceding centuries with promise of a brighter day for human life. Early in the seventeenth century Harvey had discovered the circulation of the blood; before the end of the eighteenth century Jenner was applying his newly discovered system of vaccination for the prevention of small. pox. Nevertheless through the early and middle years of the nineteenth century the great body of medical practioners followed the theories of their predecessors, and the last quarter of the century was well advanced before what may be called modern methods of medical treatment had become common. Thus the change from the old system to the new has come in upon us with the suddenness of revolution.

It is not the purpose of this essay to follow the steps of the archaeologist through the centuries of medical history back to Hippocrates, "The Father of Medicine" and the fabled descendant of the gods. Enough to serve our purpose may be found within the memory of the oldest inhabitants of to-day. Indeed, some of those may still be living who, like their brethren in the profession, began their course of study as apprentices under the theoretical and practical instruction of duly recognized physicians. Such was the usual method of beginners, who, after such preliminary preparation, went to Harvard, Philadelphia or perhaps to Edinburgh to finish their course. Some of them, indeed, had scant finishing. The writer well remembers one who practised medicine many years in the western part of Nova Scotia and never saw the inside of a medical school. Nor did he acquit himself in any discreditable fashion in his profession or stand on a lower plane than those who had had better advantages. It was said of him —"He was a born doctor," There was, however, one obstacle in his way—having no legal diploma, payment of his bills was at the option of the patient.

Although certain diseases, such as smallpox and measles, were considered contagious, the germ theory and the action of the heart were not fully understood. The condition of the pulse as a reliable symptom of disease was recognized, but temperature was not taken into account except in a general way by the sense of touch—the exact measurement by the thermometer not being taken. Powerful medicines and heroic treatment were given in abundance, including purgatives, emetics, calomel, digitalis, antimony and mercurial ointments. Fevers and other common disorders were supposed to be caused by abnormal increase of water fluids called humors in the blood, which required to be drawn off or expelled from the system by blood-letting, blistering, cupping, and purging. Anesthetics, anodynes and disinfectants were not, known. The only form in which that valuable tonic quinine was known was that of Peruvian bark. Nor had the trained nurse been discovered. Fever patients were not allowed to drink cold water, no matter how piteously and persistently they might plead for it. Amusing stories are told of how, while the night watcher slept, the sick man, tortured by thirst to the point of madness, stealthily crawled out of bed and, finding his way to the water pail, drank water by the quart. Such reprehensible neglect by the attendant was, of course concealed from the doctor. But when he came next morning he found no harm done. Indeed, the patient was better.

Popular notions were in full harmony with the theory of the physician. The doctors believed that black humors were the cause of disease and so they resorted to the lancet and the Spanish fly. The people—the laity—were so fully assured of the need of getting rid of bad blood, that bleeding was their cure for every little ailment. And especially in the spring season when the blood vessels were surcharged with vile humors, such measures should be taken, even if it were only for prevention of disease. And so every neighborhood had its amateur semi-professional who could bleed and extract teeth. There were regular doctors who experimented and the amateurs could also experiment, the two classes shading off each way to the middle ground—the quacks.

But the laity too could experiment. And there are curious stories of these things. In the western part of the Province there lived a family of early settlers. They had eight or ten children, half of whom had black hair like their mother; the other half red hair as had the father. Through childhood and adolescence they were healthy and strong. When about twenty years of age that dread disease tuberculosis seized the eldest of those having dark hair. When this one passed away, another was stricken; and so on one after another, according to age, all of this group were laid to rest. Physicians could do nothing. All sorts of patent medicines and home remedies were tried to no purpose. The fell scourge continued its work; those with the red hair now fell one by one. The parents, now in middle life, were well and strong; but, of course, inconsolable with grief were ready to give attention to any suggestion of relief. And there was one, strange, without semblance of reason to give it credence or inspiration of faith, even the lowest order of sentiment would recoil from the suggestion. There were two still living, one failing rapidly; the other yet strong and in good health. The remains of the last one who had died were exhumed, the heart was removed and—burned! Why? It was the tribute of despair when hope had fled. But still strange and wonderful, the hand of the destroyer is drawn back, and the remaining one of the second group lived to be an old woman!

One sometimes wonders how, under such treatment, people managed to live out even half their days. As to this, two or three considerations are worth taking into account. In the first place the world is built in such fashion that it can take fairly good care of itself. Note how long the solar system has been running without any outside tinkering to keep it in repair or to overcome friction, or external force to keep it going. Man, too, is fearfully and wonderfully made—endowed by nature with means of self help. This fact is finely crystallized in the three words—Vis naturae medicatrix, which being freely translated may be read, "Nature is her own doctor." There are many diseases which when allowed to run their course wear themselves out. Drugs often get credit for what nature does for itself—sometimes in spite of the drugs.

Another great truth has come down to us through the ages, expressed in the same tongue and with almost equal brevity Possunt quia posse videntur, "They are able because they believe they are able." People sometimes laugh at the pretended cures of the Christian Scientist; but the power of faith is worth reckoning with. It works its wonders in many ways, including the infinitesimal doses of the homoeopathist and the occult spells and the mysticisms of the charmer. On the other hand we may well remember that faith cannot set a dislocated joint.

We turn to the brighter scenes in . the new era of the twentieth century. Here we can enjoy the benignant light of the advancing day heralded by the morning gleams of newly risen stars. Reference has been made to Harvey and Jenner. They were followed later in the century by others of equal note—Pasteur, Koch and Lister whose work in the discovery and application of bacteriology, disinfectants, and anesthetics has given the medical profession a power in the treatment and prevention of human ailments and suffering that the world had not hitherto known of or dreamed of.

One of the grandest features characteristic of the present day medical fraternity is the frank recognition of room and opportunity for higher attainment. With all their achievements—and they are many and great—they are striving for the fulfillment of higher ideals. For the promotion of this end are their organizations for conference and comparing notes.


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