by Denise Weimer
These days, we’re hearing a lot about pneumonia that develops from COVID. A good bit of my writing is set in the first two decades of the 1800s, and several of my characters face sickness of this sort. Before antibiotics and the ability to give oxygen, and even the invention of the stethoscope in 1816, what treatments were offered? Below is a primer of terms and treatments for lung sickness in the Colonial and Federal periods.
Bronchitis was popularly called “a cold on the chest.” In 1814, a British physician became the first to use the term to denote inflammatory changes in the mucous membrane. Treatment included a hot foot bath, hot toddy or lemonade with ten grains of Dover’s powder (ipecac, powdered opium, and potassium sulfate, which often produced sweating to defeat a cold or fever) applied before tightness of the chest set in. If there was pain and soreness in the chest, a light mustard plaster could be applied over the breastbone. The cough could be loosened by a half teaspoon of the compound syrup of squills every two hours. As soon as expectoration became easier, patients could take a quarter teaspoon syrup of ipecac every hour, or, if the cough was violent, two drachm nitrate of potash, two ounces syrup of squills, half a drachm tincture of digitalis, sugar, two drachms gum Arabic in water, to make six ounces with a teaspoon in a wineglass full of water, sipped every ten or fifteen minutes. Whew! What a recipe.
Acute bronchitis could turn chronic with the persistent cough and expectoration remaining. This rarely involved pain but at most an uneasy sensation under the breastbone. The general health was not affected as long as the disease remained in the bronchial mucous membrane. A change of climate was often advocated to someplace warm and dry. Warm clothing such as wool, flannel, or silk garments next to the skin covered in buckskin was suggested. Cough remedies might include a mixture of croton and olive oil or tincture of iodine applied to the chest to loosen mucus. Several complicated receipts could be consulted for dry cough.
Chronic bronchitis occurred most often in smokers or heavy drinkers and could lead to pneumonia if the bronchitis was bacterial. Treatment c. 1808 included garlic, pepper, cinnamon, turpentine, coffee, ipecac, and potassium nitrate. Chronic bronchitis could also worsen to consumption, called “lung sickness.”
Pneumonia was an inflammation of the lung itself and was termed “lung fever.” It often started with a pronounced chill and a sharp pain on one side, then an intense fever and breathing that became hurried and painful. If the entire lung was affected, the patient might present blue skin and high fever. Linseed poultice could be applied, bound tight and covered with oiled silk. Opium and Dover’s powder might have been prescribed for pain and cough. Diet called for milk, broth, eggs, and alcohol.
Pleurisy was an inflammation of the membrane covering the lung and presented with pain in the chest with each breath and inflammation of the membrane covering inside of the thorax with fever, pain, and cough.
Native American remedies for bronchitis included a tea of boiled pleurisy root. Coughs might have been treated by inner bark of wild cherry, white pine, spicebush, or redbud, butterfly weed root, or bloodroot decoction. The pine bark or an infusion of crushed needles combined with the inner bark and young shoots was often applied to the chest on a hot cloth.
These bronchial illnesses are scary enough today. I can’t imagine the fear involved in facing them two hundred years ago. Wishing you health and safety in 2021.
Represented by Hartline Literary Agency, Denise Weimer holds a journalism degree with a minor in history from Asbury University. She’s a managing editor for the historical imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and the author of almost a dozen published novels and a number of novellas. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses!
Releasing April 13
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