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Recalling the tortures of medicine in the old days

Some medicine from 150 years ago helped you as much as drilling holes in your head.

Or downing large doses of mercury, opium or radium to cure simple maladies.

Last Thursday night, Bill Hammer, a history teacher at Beecher City High School and historian on older medical practices, talked about how the development of modern medicine overcame practices that kept undertakers busy.

His lecture “Cure Them or Kill Them” had many members of the audience in the Effingham County Cultural Center and History Museum laughing and later gritting their teeth as he described tortuous medical practices.

“We have done some really ignorant things in the field of medicine in this country. And we’ve survived,” Hammer said.

George Washington, long after he retired from the presidency, did not survive bleeding sessions by different doctors in his final days in 1799. Bleeding dated back to ancient times as a way to release bad “humors” from the body by draining blood from a vein – up to six ounces per letting in some cases.

Some doctors used leeches instead of sharp lancets – the name today used for part of the devices that draw drops of blood for testing a diabetic’s blood sugar with a glucometer.

“They bled him to death because the doctors working on him weren’t communicating enough,” Hammer said of Washington’s final days.

Cholera was a major killer in America. It wiped out some smaller villages in early America. One doctor in the 1830s at Jacksonville decided to mix laudanum, a tonic containing a dose of opium, red peppers and brandy to cure Cholera. Hammer said that doctor once wrote about the idea as “Cure them or Kill Them.”

It seemed some doctors through the centuries seemed determined to try anything to cure their patients. Trepanning was the practice of drilling a hole in the head to reduce pressure on the brain. It was a far cry from early brain surgery.

Morphine was mixed into all kinds of tonics with sweet names like “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup” offering claims of curing just about anything. Of course, a child patient so imbued might not feel anything for a time while “soothed” by morphine. Hammer said many parents recommended it to their babysitters for calming the child.

Medical products with mixes of mercury could be used different ways, including as a laxative. One had “Thunderbolt” in its name for very good reason.

“When you used that laxative you had to go pretty quickly,” Hammer said of those thunderbolt moments at the water closets or outhouses.

Radium-based medicine caused severe cancer. One user of Radithor became so infected he lost his jaw. He would eventually die.

Hammer offered some tutorials on images of older medical devices. One syringe used to battle venereal disease caused many males in the audience to cringe. A constipation chair also left audience members scratching their heads until they noticed the apparatus used to shake the seat.

“Yes, they shook it out of you,” Hammer said.

He also talked about how the lack of cleanliness among doctors during the late 1800s contributed to the mortality rate. Poor sanitation in military camps also spread disease during the Civil War – more soldiers during that war died of disease than from combat. There were some improvements in sanitation before the end of the war, but some doctors still didn’t get the message.

That was proven in 1881 when President James Garfield, a Civil War general for the North, was wounded in the back by an assassin. The poor practices by the doctors attending Garfield led to an infection.

“They would stick fingers into the bullet wound. They kept searching for the bullet,” Hammer said.

It was a terrible, lingering death that could have been prevented. Hammer noted that many men from that era carried bullets in their bodies and lived full lives, including President Andrew Jackson.

Fortunately, the cures have improved through the decades. For the most part, we stand a better chance at being cured than killed.

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