Tuesday, April 4, 2017

On being sick. . . a century (or half century) ago

The progress of the 1918 Influenza in chart form.

As those who stop in here know, I've been cross posting some of the daily entries on the 100 Years Ago Today Subreddit.  Because of that some of those entries have a much wider audience than most entries here do and that's been interesting when they generated comments.  Likewise, as starting with the 1916 raid on Columbus New Mexico I've been tracking daily events quite a bit (which is about to end, with the onset of World War One for the US), I've run across items that have sparked ideas for topics, a few of which, in the context of this blog, are actually topical.

Here's one.  What was it like to be sick?

It was serious.

The introduction of penicillin during World War Two, followed by later drugs like amoxicillin, have nearly completely changed our experience of being sick.  This really came home to me in two ways here recently, one being the entry on Loretta Perfectus Walsh and the other being the Cheyenne newspapers on closing public places.

Lets start with Chief Yeoman Walsh.

I noted in my entry on her the following:
A Reddit poster asked, if she died in 1925 of tuberculosis how could she have been a victim of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.

The state of medicine provides the explanation, and this wasn't uncommon.  Indeed, the same is true for an aunt of my mothers after whom she was named.  She died several years after having the 1918 flu.

Now, if you have the flu, in can be serious.  But a century ago, it was serious.  And this was true for darned near any virus, let alone a virulent one.  There were no antibiotics that were available.  Indeed, there was really no treatment at all.  You simply stayed home in bed while some designated member of the family tried to ease your suffering.  If things were bad enough, you might end up in a hospital, but they had to be very bad indeed, and the treatment you'd receive there would differ but little.

For illnesses, at that time, nearly all treatment was limited to simply trying to lessen your discomfort.  What treatments there were often related to this, or were sometimes helpful and sometimes dangerous folk remedies.  Starving a cold and feeding a fever, for example (or is it the other way around) is nonsense.

Suffering through colds surely isn't uncommon now, some readers might be noting. That's true, but suffering through things that stand a good chance of killing you.  And if they didn't kill you, and usually of course they did not, they often put a strain on your body that set you up for some other sickness later.

This was very well known at the time, but it seems almost incredible now.  How could having the flu, or rheumatic fever, kill you from some other ailment, or cause a heart attack a few years later, or the like?
Well, it can. And for thousands before World War Two recovery from a serious virus often meant living in a permanently weakened state. And that weakened state, for some, meant an early death.
And for some who didn't die young, there were other long lasting impacts in some cases.  High fevers in adults sometimes resulted in permanent mental impairment.  Small Pox meant lifelong scars.  Indeed, to such an extent that you can often view photos of people from a century ago or more and the captions will debate if their face had small pox scars or not, or whether pot marked skin was  their natural complexion.  Noting a condition that was common at that time was apparently just not done, leaving us to wonder.  Measles in adult men sometimes caused sterility.
Now, also keep in mind that there were no vaccines for these diseases either.  For minor viruses, like the chicken pox, the approach often taken by parents was to expose children to another child who had it while they were young. Getting it over with was the approach.  For others serious diseases the approach was to desperately try to save the public from exposure.

Scarlet Fever, an extremely serious virus, took the front page along with the onset of World War One in this issue of the Laramie Boomerang.

Its for this reason that we see the extraordinary stories of Mayors closing public places; schools, theaters, and even churches, to avoid spreading serious diseases.  I can't recall this ever occurring in the US during my lifetime and I suspect if a mayor tried that now there'd be serious questions about his authority. But it was very routine at the time.  People reading the early 1917 newspapers that have been posted here can find numerous examples of this occurring in Cheyenne and Laramie, as mayors tried to battle scarlet fever.

And of course then were were social diseases.

Ragtime great Scott Joplin who died at age 49, after first being committed due to insanity of syphilis. Insanity and death was the natural, and inevitable, course of the disease.
We just read of the tragic example of Scott Joplin.  His is certainly not an isolated example.  Social diseases prior to penicillin were very dangerous.  Not everyone died, but a lot did, and the progression of the diseases was grim in the extreme.  Indeed, for women who fell into prostitution the chances of dying in this grim way were better than not.

In modern times there's likely only disease that fits the pre World War Two pattern, and that disease is AIDS.  A social disease itself, there's been enormous progress in combating it, even though it cannot be, as of yet, cured.  For those old enough to remember when it hit the news some decades ago it was a shocking thing to read of.  In a lot of ways, however, as horrific as it was, it sort of fit a pattern that many diseases prior to World War Two fit into. We don't think of it that way as those prior generations were so acclimated to death by disease.  Being sick before mid 20th Century was, to say the least, a completely different thing that it is now.

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