Happy to be sick in the 21st century

This past weekend I developed flu-like symptoms and spent entire days just lying down on the couch (watching Bones—for which my husband doesn’t share my passion). I was miserable, cursing the Biblical fall of man, as it were, and feeling like I’d never leave the house again. But here I am, having just finished a shift at work and only dealing with an annoying case of the sniffles. What did this experience make me think of? Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

Bust of Louisa May Alcott

According to American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, Alcott developed pneumonia (or maybe typhoid) while working as a nurse in Washington D.C. during the Civil War. Following the practice of the time, a doctor administered her some calomel.


Calomel is a compound essentially made of mercury and chlorine. Do I need to repeat that? Mercury and chlorine. Two extremely dangerous and poisonous elements. It was used as a purgative during the Age of Heroic Medicine, when blood-letting, vomiting, sweating, and intestinal purging were used to treat diseases. So if you have the flu, the best thing to do is bleed all over the floor, throw up, and then purge your bowels in a chamber-pot next to your bed. I can’t imagine why the average life span in 1860 was about 40.


Anyway, Alcott was treated with calomel and continued to work as a nurse. Her gums started to bleed; her tongue swelled; her full, beautiful hair began to fall out. Only six weeks after she first arrived in Washington, Alcott was chaperoned back home. By this time, the mercury poisoning had destroyed her nervous system. She felt so much pain she was unable for a time to walk, and she had to learn how to write with her left hand because her right was too rheumatic. Alcott never fully recovered but instead became an opium addict a she tried to deal with the pain.


Calomel was used to treat any number of diseases in the 19th century. Meriwether Lewis took calomel-laced pills on the Expedition and administered them to his men sick with syphilis. (Yes, actually, most of the members of the Corps of Discovery were sick with venereal diseases during the entire expedition.) And most of the time the mercury simply passed right through their systems. Modern day scholars can actually trace parts of the Lewis and Clark route by the “deposits” of mercury. You know you are making history when people consider finding your excrement an exciting discovery.


Another fun mercury fact: Mozart, the child prodigy of classical music, may have actually died because of a dose of mercury to treat his syphilis. And Isaac Newton, the closet alchemist, experimented so much with the stuff that 25 times the normal amount of mercury was posthumously found in his hair.


I am kind of in love with this subject, mercury and all these other barbaric cures. What pre-21st century cures do you find the most gruesome and interesting?


24 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Glad that you are feeling better.
    Since I work in the Eye Care field, I find that the ‘couching’ of cataracts was the most barbaric practice. Basically it is the manipulation of the cataract from the lens’s natural position into the back of the eye so that vision is restored. I will spare the details.
    From a literary angle. Some medical historians believe this is how Tobit’s vision was restored in the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha.

    1. I did some web research on couching and…wow… those couching needles are scary!

  2. Josh says:

    How about the “scarificator”…which was used on George Washington…probably leading to his death.

    1. The wikipedia page for blood letting has an amazing image of a woodcut pointing out all the different appropriate areas for blood letting. It’s…informative.

      1. Josh says:

        “Points for blood-letting, Hans von Gersdorff (surgeon), Field book of wound medicine, 1517”


  3. Rev. Barry says:

    Mercury was used in prep of felt to make hats, that is were Mad as a Hatter comes from. Old cures in the civil war started many new things, it is said orthopedic medicine was born in this war.Thinking of method of cutting off a limb with no analgesia,oh madness! I was awake when my wrist was operated on,It and my arm was numb. I was ‘relaxed’ but I talked and traded jokes with the Doc. Strange event! Oh the pain when the drugs wore off and the pain came,and those soldiers went through the whole proccess fully awake,maybe some whiskey..Ouch! That deal with Washington, I read that his illness thined blood so he needed blood not to be bled out.Oh I’m glad I live in this age!

    1. Amputation without anesthesia certainly would not be fun, but amputation was actually as you say a major development in medicine from the Civil War.

  4. Phil A. Stein says:

    I have often wondered if I’d still be alive today if not for the advancements in the medical field. For example, I have had kidney stones removed. I recall reading about Samuel Pepys being one of the first to have kidney stones surgically removed and survive, and presumably without an anasthetic. So what if I’d been born before then? But my surgeon says my stones were probably due to too many vitamin C pills which probably didn’t exist back then. So I’d probably still be alive except for my appendicitis. When did appendectomies achieve a level of success?

    1. Wikipedia says 1735.

      I’m reading the book Doctors by Sherwin Nuland right now, and he says that in Ancient Greece there were actually surgeons who specialized in removing stones. Not that it was always successful, of course. Apparently an unsuccessful bladder stone removal could lead to permanent wounds that leaked pus-filled urine.

  5. Mike C. says:

    Many of the early “mental health” treatments seem more like torture rather then a cure, but then again, what do you do when someone is possessed by a devil? Maybe make them read poorly written Pop-fiction. Any suggestions? 🙂

    1. On the flip side, think of all the mental health problems that went undiagnosed. I just heard that Samuel Johnson may have had Tourrette syndrome.

  6. A fictionalized account of the Pepys surgery was actually used as a plot device in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy. I mention it because the first ‘treatment’ I thought of when I read this piece was a, as near as I can tell, PURELY FICTIONAL ‘cure’ for syphillis performed on one of the main characters, Jack Shaftoe. A disreputable physician botched the ‘cure’ which led to his nickname… half-cock Jack… ouch. Since I can find no evidence that such treatments actually took place, it probably doesn’t count but still …

    1. I’ve been thinking about reading the Baroque Cycle. Is it worthwhile?

      1. If Katherine Neville had written it, it would be considered a Thriller. If Gary Jennings had written it, you’d have no problem calling it Historical Fiction. Based solely on page count, you’d be tempted to shelve it in Fantasy. But because Neal Stephenson wrote it, it is classified as Science Fiction, though there are only a few ‘fantastical’ elements, and most of those can be alternately interpreted using non-fantastical explanations.

        I really enjoyed it. While the ideas don’t come as fast and furious as earlier Stephenson, the characters are far more realistically drawn. The women, in particular, break from the cliche SF model (either ‘one-of-the-guys’ style tomboys who the men have no problems relating to or ‘porcelain dolls’ to be placed on a pedestal under glass to be adored/worshipped from a distance). Instead, we get fully drawn, complex, interesting characters confronting/exploring/experiencing the Science, Politics and Economics of a fascinating time in history, the late 17th and early 18th centuries. For readers who have only a passing knowledge of this era, the books can easily trigger a desire to learn more. And if you know a bit more about the era, you will smile at his fictional treatment of historical characters and events.

        Being everything from the IT guy to the janitor (and all jobs in between) at my shop, the last thing I thought I’d want to do was to commit to reading a 2600 plus page ‘cycle.’ And yet he drew me in and to this day, I will still smile and linger over some of the events/characters. As much as I enjoyed Snow Crash, I remember only some of the ideas and almost none of the plot anymore. With the Baroque Cycle, he became, in my opinion, a fully ‘mature’ writer. Joe sez “Check it out!”

        1. Great recommendation. Thank you!

  7. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Before antibiotics were discovered, there were no cures for leprosy. Lepers were isolated for long periods of time during which many developed severe disabilities and disfigurements . Today, leprosy is easily cured with medicines. Immediate treatment has reduced the chances of any long-term disabilities that develop prior to the days of successful treatment medications. No need to send the ill to an island somewhere………….

    1. A fantasy series I enjoyed when I was younger features a protagonist with leprosy: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

      James Michener’s book Hawaii also goes quite a bit into the leprosy settlement there.

  8. erikhaun says:

    Actually, I’m reminded of your last blog where you showed that horrifyingly painful looking set of catheters that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain had to use for the last 50 years of his life. You had to point them out twice, too, thank you very much! 😛

  9. Excelsior says:

    Have been involved in the medical field for thirteen years, and cannot agree in advocating how advanced we have become. Emergency medicine is what I assume you make reference to when stating progress. Chronic illness is a drastically different paradigm. Oncology is far worse than any treatment option listed above. One is tortured to death in order to rid the body of cancer. The established modality is to bring the person as close to death as possible due to healthy cells replicating in two to three days, where as cancerous cells take five. Chemo and radiation do not make a distinction between the two. One is being infused with cytotoxins, which destroy every cell. The only real tangible hope for cancer patients, is anti-neoplaston therapy, which is utilzed in only one clinic in the world (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qG_ZWs04es). This is just one medical specialty. My contemporary research involves stealh pathogens such as Lyme’s Disease and it’s co-infections. Gulf War Syndrome is of interest as well, due to soldiers coming home with unidentified pathogens. Have had neuroborreliosis (Lyme Disease in the brain) for at least ten years. There are no established treatments for these microbes, hence the advancements have come in diagnostics. The deeper one peers into the snake hole the darker it gets. Structurally we have a firm understanding, but metabolically is in its infancy still. We fabricate medicines to help suppress symptoms and clear up the casual infection; but the general public has no concept of reality’s claw that will catch up with everyone. In the field of medicine I have learned to trust no one, sound advice given by my doctor himself. So in short, there is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval. Have enjoyed your insight on tv, you chose a very difficult field in which literature, is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.

    1. Thank you for your interesting and informed thoughts on the subject. I by no means meant to imply that today’s medicine is perfect! Do you have any suggested readings on the history of medicine for the layman? For example, have you read/did you like The Emperor of All Maladies, for instance?

      1. Excelsior says:

        Typically the credible information comes from medical journals; as bio-medical sciences look for the newest and cutting edge(forgive the cliche) data. As far as books go, I cannot list one of the top of my head that is stellar. Interesting reads would be published articles such as the work of Dr. Linus Pauling who won two Nobel peace prizes for his work in intravenous high dose vitamin C and cancer treatment. He is considered the father of Orthomolecular medicine. He teamed up with Dr. John Myers to orchestrate the Myers cocktail which enhances cells for up to a year after a single infusion. Writings by Dr. Weston A Price are a good read and “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon is a great start to basic wellness and prevention. Not necessarily a medical book but fuses with Orthomolecular medicine to create a healthy internal terrain in which pathogens cannot survive. On his death bed, Louis Pasteur stated, “The microbe was nothing, that the terrain was everything.” So there is much to be said about a healthy diet and lifestyle. Thank you for your response, did not expect one. Forgive my previous post, it was late and my diction and syntax slips drastically. The Link in my previous post pertains to the most advanced cancer treatment and is a great documentary for anyone, especially if they or a loved one has cancer. All the best and God bless.

  10. Paul Lampe says:

    My daughter’s name is Josephine, after Jo in “Little Women.”

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