I was relaxing the other day, re-reading an article I’d saved from an old New Yorker, about leeches, and how they’ve come back into medical fashion.
“Wow,” thought I. “That’s a nice, gross subject to blog about. We had some childbirth talk recently. How about the hundred different ways Regency medicine could kill you?”
Leeches were the big cure-all, especially during the early 19th century. Doctors prescribed them for whatever ailed you. (Side note: Reading history is one of the reasons I tend to view the latest medical miracle drugs with a certain degree of skepticism. One of my latest skepticisms is antidepressants, which in recent years seem to be prescribed for just about everything, not simply depression. I hear how it’ll cure insomnia or migraine or backache or whatever, and I can’t help thinking, “Oh, right, like leeches.”)
Anyway, it’s a particular type of leech that does the job, and it was so popular that in some places it was harvested to extinction or near-extinction. According to the article, excessive leeching is what killed Byron. I’m not sure where that information came from. One of the Marchand biographies says he was bled (to excess, definitely) and purged, but it mentions lancets, not leeches. Anyway, if you want to read all the gory details as well as why doctors are using leeches, it’s the New Yorker of 25 July 2005 and the article is “Bloodsuckers.” The accompanying illustration is wonderfully macabre.
On to Fanny Burney, who not only had a mastectomy without anesthesia or antibiotics and survived to tell the tale (which she did in lurid detail, apparently) but lived another 29 years. If we wrote this kind of story in our historical romances, (a) everyone would run away screaming and (b) no one would believe it.
Here’s what happened, according to Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A Biography. Ms. Burney, in her fifties, had a large, painful lump in her breast. She was in Paris at the time, and the doctor she consulted was “Napoleon’s celebrated army-surgeon Dominique-Jean Larrey.” Now here’s the part that had me reeling: “In the medical culture of the day, exposure of a female patient’s body to examination was not insisted on, and it is highly likely, given Fanny’s temperament and her stated ‘dread & repugnance’ of medical intervention ‘from a thousand reasons besides the pain,’ that Larrey had not actually seen the breast until he was just about to cut it off.” We are told that none of the doctors involved examined the tumor until the day of operation, “and even then, they didn’t touch it.” It’s now theorized that the tumor–fist-sized–was benign. Had she had a malignant tumor of that size, her chances of living nearly three more decades were about nil. For excerpts from her account of the experience–not for the squeamish–check out the Harman biography.
And of course everybody knows that an infallible cure for cancer is the consumption of ground-up woodlice or the drinking of warm urine.
Here is more medical wisdom, this time from The New Female Instructor: “Of all parts of the body, the head receives most benefit from the effusion of cold water; this is a simple and effectual remedy against too great an impulse of the blood towards the head, where persons are threatened with apoplexy (a stroke); in disorders of the brain and cranium; in wounds and other complaints, to which the head is subject.”
So, when you tell somebody, “Go soak your head,” you mean it in a good way?
Loretta, who must run away now (not screaming) but has plenty more to say about covers, too, when she returns on Sunday.