Throughout history, communal diseases have caused many deaths and countless heartbreak. England’s rapid population growth led to overcrowding, poverty, and a lack of sanitary living, which resulted in rampant disease. Patients were often isolated from others, and treatment could be painful, causing death. Below is a limited list of illness and disease, along with herbal remedies and toxins used to try to counter them.
Ague- is another name for malaria. This disease brings on chills, shivering, and fever. The ague existed in England until the mid 19th century, and was transmitted by the mosquito as it is in the West Indies. It was found in the marshlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Proper drainage helped eradicate the disease. Cinchona Bark- 1677 it is listed in the London Pharmacopoeia. Used to cure King Charles II of England from malaria, as well as helping many others.
Apoplexy- is a stroke. The results of a stroke could bring death, while recovery usually involves some paralysis. Many died within hours of the attack. Bloodletting was believed to help the patient. Survivors were sometimes mistaken as mad due to their inability to speak or control bodily functions. Some were placed in asylums.
Cholera- is caused by bacillus that lives in the intestines and is dispelled by human waste. Sewage ran into the Thames, which supplied the drinking water and in turn the disease is ingested. This disease did not affect Europe until the 1830’s. Symptoms are nausea, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, burning feeling in stomach, and thirst. Death usually occurs in 24 hours after first sign of symptoms. Cholera hit London’s slums the hardest. Physicians would treat the symptoms with bloodletting or an opiate like laudanum.
Consumption- is tuberculosis of the lungs. Spread through the air, saliva, and blood. It causes weakness, fatigue, and in the latter stages of the disease people have a burst of energy and creativity. The disease killed more people in Britain in the 1800’s than smallpox, measles, typhus, whooping cough, and scarlet fever combined. Like many of the diseases mentioned, there was not an effective treatment for the disease. It was however seen as a “romantic disease” as the sufferer had a heightened sense of sensitivity as death neared. The disease progressed slowly, allowing people to get their affairs in order. Lord Byron is quoted to have said, “I should like to die from consumption.” The disease came to represent spiritual purity and temporal wealth.
Croup- this name applied to many illnesses at the time, including diphtheria. This disease occurred with children, leading to hoarseness and coughing. Severe cases led to convulsions and death. Nowadays we say the patient is barking like a seal when they contract this virus. Croup causes inflammation in the upper airways. The disease often begins with signs of the common cold. White Horehound Syrup- used to try an alleviate cough and lung trouble. Known to have a pleasant taste.
Diphtheria- was not diagnosed or named correctly until the 1820’s, this illness affected children more severely than adults. Transmitted by sneezing, it caused inflammation in the mucous membranes, making breathing so difficult that it often led to death. Also known as the Boulogne sour throat in England. Today, a vaccination is administered for prevention, usually in a combination DTP shot.
Dropsy-this wasn’t an actual illness, but a symptom of an underlining health issue. Dropsy is swelling in the body caused by fluid. This could be a symptom of kidney problems or poor circulation due to hardened arteries. The person may have edema due to congestive heart failure. Foxglove- highly toxic, given only by doctor. Camomile- is a syrup made using the juice of Camomilien.
Dyspepsia- indigestion caused by overeating and lack of thorough chewing. Fennel- treated indigestion and helped to increase a nursing mother’s milk supply.
Gout- this disease can be hereditary and was found among the upper classes, since they consumed large quantities of meat and wine. The uric acids in combination of the food and drink can cause painful swelling in joints. White Willow Bark- used to treat gout, headaches, diarrhea, and dysentery. It is also known to relieve pain and inflammation.
Palsy- this paralysis is caused by a host of diseases such as Parkinson’s, sciatica, and muscular dystrophy. Partial paralysis can be caused by apoplexy and paraplegia. Palsy causes uncontrollable shaking.
Pleurisy-is an inflammation of the lungs that produces a hacking cough and sharp chest pain. Respiratory infections and pneumonia are the main causes of pleurisy. Milk Weed- helps to relieve breathing difficulties, ease pain, and lesson inflammation. Leeches- applied to ribcage where the pain was located.
Smallpox- virus causes blister bumps on skin and in the mouth and throat, accompanied with a fever. If you get this disease and survive, you would not get it again. Believed to have emerged in 10,000 BC. A smallpox rash was found on Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt. It can cause blindness due to ocular scarring. Eighty percent of children that contacted this disease died. It is airborne and easily inhaled or transmitted through bodily fluids. One of the first vaccinations ever created was for smallpox in 1798.
Typhoid Fever-brought on by consuming food or water that has been contaminated by human waste either directly or through flies. Could lead to delirium and death if untreated. Often accompanied by a rash that is similar to Typhus. It has four stages with a variety of terrible symptoms. Sanitation and education is the way to prevent it. Bloodletting and Calomel- Calomel is Mercury and it acts as a purgative and kills bacteria. It also does irreversible damage to the patient.
Typhus- is spread by body lice. (aka. Putrid fever) Napoleon’s army lost thousands from this disease on their retreat from Russia in 1812. Symptoms include delirium, headaches, fever, and a rash, which usually cleared in two weeks unless the disease was fatal. The disease is caused from overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. If you have typhus as a child it can return. Jane Austen had typhus as a child. Nothing could cure Typhus until the invention of antibiotics. Bloodletting and diluting the blood-diluting the blood called for mercury and antimony (both toxic) to be administered in doses orally and in enemas. Many patients were stripped naked and doused in cold water since it was believed the patient should be kept cold.
Yellow Fever-a tropical disease spread by mosquitos. It usually occurred in seaports and carried flu like symptoms. This disease killed many British soldiers in the West Indies. Severe cases led to kidney and liver failure. Bloodletting, cold baths, and a calomel and James’s powder purge. Often bled 4-5 times in a 30-hour period.
Related Blog Articles:
Regency Home Remedies: Leeches and Bloodletting http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=102
Drugs and Addiction in Regency England http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=114
A special thank you to Daniel Pool What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon, Book of Poisons. Scott Cunningham Magical Herbalism. Roy and Lesley Adkins Jane Austen’s England.