Strange medicine

From Loretta:

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.

33 thoughts on “Strange medicine”

  1. Leeches. *SHUDDER* Though I do have to say that I know a guy (barber surgeon reenactor) who keeps a few as pets/props, and they’re kinda cool. I love watching them swim around in their tank. Someday I’ll screw up my courage and give one a feeding (nothing like first person research).
    One of my on-line writing groups (The Beau Monde, which I know some of you are members of; Hi Jo!) was just discussing treatments for dog bites, which naturally morphed in rabid dog bites . . . ugh. Someday I’m going to have a villain bitten by a rabid dog just so I can put him through all that (cutting, bleeding, mercurial treatments ingested and topically applied, lots of horrible things!).

    Reply
  2. Leeches. *SHUDDER* Though I do have to say that I know a guy (barber surgeon reenactor) who keeps a few as pets/props, and they’re kinda cool. I love watching them swim around in their tank. Someday I’ll screw up my courage and give one a feeding (nothing like first person research).
    One of my on-line writing groups (The Beau Monde, which I know some of you are members of; Hi Jo!) was just discussing treatments for dog bites, which naturally morphed in rabid dog bites . . . ugh. Someday I’m going to have a villain bitten by a rabid dog just so I can put him through all that (cutting, bleeding, mercurial treatments ingested and topically applied, lots of horrible things!).

    Reply
  3. Leeches. *SHUDDER* Though I do have to say that I know a guy (barber surgeon reenactor) who keeps a few as pets/props, and they’re kinda cool. I love watching them swim around in their tank. Someday I’ll screw up my courage and give one a feeding (nothing like first person research).
    One of my on-line writing groups (The Beau Monde, which I know some of you are members of; Hi Jo!) was just discussing treatments for dog bites, which naturally morphed in rabid dog bites . . . ugh. Someday I’m going to have a villain bitten by a rabid dog just so I can put him through all that (cutting, bleeding, mercurial treatments ingested and topically applied, lots of horrible things!).

    Reply
  4. In The Rogue’s Return Jo Beverley’s heroine uses maggots to save her husband’s arm from the surgeon’s axe. Just as gross as leeches, in my opinion, but effective, certainly in fiction!

    Reply
  5. In The Rogue’s Return Jo Beverley’s heroine uses maggots to save her husband’s arm from the surgeon’s axe. Just as gross as leeches, in my opinion, but effective, certainly in fiction!

    Reply
  6. In The Rogue’s Return Jo Beverley’s heroine uses maggots to save her husband’s arm from the surgeon’s axe. Just as gross as leeches, in my opinion, but effective, certainly in fiction!

    Reply
  7. Maggots and leeches…ugh. I prefer the fantasy version of spiderwebs. But now that you’ve got me thinking about this…what a great way to make a villain suffer. Must ponder: soak his head, stuff his ear with leeches, add maggots… nice. I like it.
    Pat

    Reply
  8. Maggots and leeches…ugh. I prefer the fantasy version of spiderwebs. But now that you’ve got me thinking about this…what a great way to make a villain suffer. Must ponder: soak his head, stuff his ear with leeches, add maggots… nice. I like it.
    Pat

    Reply
  9. Maggots and leeches…ugh. I prefer the fantasy version of spiderwebs. But now that you’ve got me thinking about this…what a great way to make a villain suffer. Must ponder: soak his head, stuff his ear with leeches, add maggots… nice. I like it.
    Pat

    Reply
  10. Prom Jo.
    Re maggots, they are still used today on wounds that won’t heal with antibiotics because they are amazingly effective. It’s strange to me that some patients won’t have them.
    Ask me whether I want to lose my leg or have maggots clean out the wound, and I’d say, “Bring me the lovely maggots!”
    But then, I do vermicomposting. (Worms.) And I appreciate those little squirmy things, too.
    The terrible thing is that this ability of maggots to avoid infection of wounds was observed in the Napoleonic Wars. Wounded soldier left on the battlefield for a couple of days for whatever reason were usually found with maggot-infested wounds, and at least one army surgeon noted that they seemed to do better than those who received promt attention. No one did anything with the information, however, probably because they considered themselves in the age of professionalism and science, and that was peasant medicine stuff.
    Incidentally, there are the wrong sort of maggots that eat live flesh instead of dead, but they’re hot climate lovers.
    Squeam alert!
    The way of collecting them used in The Rogue’s Return — from meat killed for eating and hung — is a safe way to get the right sort, though of course these days they breed them carefully for medical purposes.
    If you want to read more about The Rogue’s Return,
    http://members.shaw.ca/jobev/reghist.html#ROGUESRET
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  11. Prom Jo.
    Re maggots, they are still used today on wounds that won’t heal with antibiotics because they are amazingly effective. It’s strange to me that some patients won’t have them.
    Ask me whether I want to lose my leg or have maggots clean out the wound, and I’d say, “Bring me the lovely maggots!”
    But then, I do vermicomposting. (Worms.) And I appreciate those little squirmy things, too.
    The terrible thing is that this ability of maggots to avoid infection of wounds was observed in the Napoleonic Wars. Wounded soldier left on the battlefield for a couple of days for whatever reason were usually found with maggot-infested wounds, and at least one army surgeon noted that they seemed to do better than those who received promt attention. No one did anything with the information, however, probably because they considered themselves in the age of professionalism and science, and that was peasant medicine stuff.
    Incidentally, there are the wrong sort of maggots that eat live flesh instead of dead, but they’re hot climate lovers.
    Squeam alert!
    The way of collecting them used in The Rogue’s Return — from meat killed for eating and hung — is a safe way to get the right sort, though of course these days they breed them carefully for medical purposes.
    If you want to read more about The Rogue’s Return,
    http://members.shaw.ca/jobev/reghist.html#ROGUESRET
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  12. Prom Jo.
    Re maggots, they are still used today on wounds that won’t heal with antibiotics because they are amazingly effective. It’s strange to me that some patients won’t have them.
    Ask me whether I want to lose my leg or have maggots clean out the wound, and I’d say, “Bring me the lovely maggots!”
    But then, I do vermicomposting. (Worms.) And I appreciate those little squirmy things, too.
    The terrible thing is that this ability of maggots to avoid infection of wounds was observed in the Napoleonic Wars. Wounded soldier left on the battlefield for a couple of days for whatever reason were usually found with maggot-infested wounds, and at least one army surgeon noted that they seemed to do better than those who received promt attention. No one did anything with the information, however, probably because they considered themselves in the age of professionalism and science, and that was peasant medicine stuff.
    Incidentally, there are the wrong sort of maggots that eat live flesh instead of dead, but they’re hot climate lovers.
    Squeam alert!
    The way of collecting them used in The Rogue’s Return — from meat killed for eating and hung — is a safe way to get the right sort, though of course these days they breed them carefully for medical purposes.
    If you want to read more about The Rogue’s Return,
    http://members.shaw.ca/jobev/reghist.html#ROGUESRET
    Jo 🙂

    Reply
  13. tal sez:
    Now The Mole is getting hungry!
    For some real horror stories, of bad medical treatment that didn’t even work, read the account of the last days of Charles II, or any detailed account of the methods utilized in insane asylums up to and including the present. I’ve read a few books in which the heroine was confined to one (almost invariably by a villain, when she was perfectly sane), and it’s so awful I won’t read anything with that plot any more.

    Reply
  14. tal sez:
    Now The Mole is getting hungry!
    For some real horror stories, of bad medical treatment that didn’t even work, read the account of the last days of Charles II, or any detailed account of the methods utilized in insane asylums up to and including the present. I’ve read a few books in which the heroine was confined to one (almost invariably by a villain, when she was perfectly sane), and it’s so awful I won’t read anything with that plot any more.

    Reply
  15. tal sez:
    Now The Mole is getting hungry!
    For some real horror stories, of bad medical treatment that didn’t even work, read the account of the last days of Charles II, or any detailed account of the methods utilized in insane asylums up to and including the present. I’ve read a few books in which the heroine was confined to one (almost invariably by a villain, when she was perfectly sane), and it’s so awful I won’t read anything with that plot any more.

    Reply
  16. Re horrible medical treatment, I think Nancy Mitford has an account of some surgery Louis XIV underwent in her biography of the Sun King which grossed me out for days. And didn’t Diana Gabaldon use maggots in her books?

    Reply
  17. Re horrible medical treatment, I think Nancy Mitford has an account of some surgery Louis XIV underwent in her biography of the Sun King which grossed me out for days. And didn’t Diana Gabaldon use maggots in her books?

    Reply
  18. Re horrible medical treatment, I think Nancy Mitford has an account of some surgery Louis XIV underwent in her biography of the Sun King which grossed me out for days. And didn’t Diana Gabaldon use maggots in her books?

    Reply
  19. Ick, definitely a book for me to stay away from. And I’ll certainly never allow a doctor to let a leech touch me. Come to think of it, am I wrong or was “leech” actually the slang name for a doctor at one time? My dictionary of British slang is somewhere in storage so I can’t check it. Maybe someone else has it–I have it as a Penguin, almost trade size.
    Yes, I found it on the Net http://dict.die.net/leech/ – about halfway down the page, fourth definition after the Google ad.

    Reply
  20. Ick, definitely a book for me to stay away from. And I’ll certainly never allow a doctor to let a leech touch me. Come to think of it, am I wrong or was “leech” actually the slang name for a doctor at one time? My dictionary of British slang is somewhere in storage so I can’t check it. Maybe someone else has it–I have it as a Penguin, almost trade size.
    Yes, I found it on the Net http://dict.die.net/leech/ – about halfway down the page, fourth definition after the Google ad.

    Reply
  21. Ick, definitely a book for me to stay away from. And I’ll certainly never allow a doctor to let a leech touch me. Come to think of it, am I wrong or was “leech” actually the slang name for a doctor at one time? My dictionary of British slang is somewhere in storage so I can’t check it. Maybe someone else has it–I have it as a Penguin, almost trade size.
    Yes, I found it on the Net http://dict.die.net/leech/ – about halfway down the page, fourth definition after the Google ad.

    Reply
  22. Loretta, I have an old set of Fanny Burney’s diaries, and the section on her mastectomy is brutal reading. I’m amazed she was able to write about it, but I’m glad she did.
    It is indeed sad to imagine that she might not have had to go through all that. But I suspect if they’d simply removed the lump without anesthesia it would have been almost as gruesome as removing the beast.
    I love reading and writing about those days, but I’m sure as heck glad I don’t live in them!
    And I’m dying to know, Jo, if you’d been holding onto that bit of research about maggots just waiting for the right story, or did you discover it in your research for The Rogue’s Return?

    Reply
  23. Loretta, I have an old set of Fanny Burney’s diaries, and the section on her mastectomy is brutal reading. I’m amazed she was able to write about it, but I’m glad she did.
    It is indeed sad to imagine that she might not have had to go through all that. But I suspect if they’d simply removed the lump without anesthesia it would have been almost as gruesome as removing the beast.
    I love reading and writing about those days, but I’m sure as heck glad I don’t live in them!
    And I’m dying to know, Jo, if you’d been holding onto that bit of research about maggots just waiting for the right story, or did you discover it in your research for The Rogue’s Return?

    Reply
  24. Loretta, I have an old set of Fanny Burney’s diaries, and the section on her mastectomy is brutal reading. I’m amazed she was able to write about it, but I’m glad she did.
    It is indeed sad to imagine that she might not have had to go through all that. But I suspect if they’d simply removed the lump without anesthesia it would have been almost as gruesome as removing the beast.
    I love reading and writing about those days, but I’m sure as heck glad I don’t live in them!
    And I’m dying to know, Jo, if you’d been holding onto that bit of research about maggots just waiting for the right story, or did you discover it in your research for The Rogue’s Return?

    Reply
  25. From Loretta:
    I agree that leeches are gross to an extreme degree, and maggots equally so. However, as Jo & Sherrie have explained, they are being used successfully in modern medicine to treat problems for which nothing else works at present. I’m not sure how brave I could be, but, as Jo said, if it was a choice of losing a limb or letting the doc apply maggots, I’d probably ask for heavy sedation & let them apply the maggots.

    Reply
  26. From Loretta:
    I agree that leeches are gross to an extreme degree, and maggots equally so. However, as Jo & Sherrie have explained, they are being used successfully in modern medicine to treat problems for which nothing else works at present. I’m not sure how brave I could be, but, as Jo said, if it was a choice of losing a limb or letting the doc apply maggots, I’d probably ask for heavy sedation & let them apply the maggots.

    Reply
  27. From Loretta:
    I agree that leeches are gross to an extreme degree, and maggots equally so. However, as Jo & Sherrie have explained, they are being used successfully in modern medicine to treat problems for which nothing else works at present. I’m not sure how brave I could be, but, as Jo said, if it was a choice of losing a limb or letting the doc apply maggots, I’d probably ask for heavy sedation & let them apply the maggots.

    Reply
  28. From Loretta:
    Candice, the excerpt I read was truly harrowing, but I have vowed to look up the diaries someday and get more detail. I do think that for a writer–which she was–writing about a horrifying experience is a way of coming to terms with it. When we write, we are controlling the words, and at least that’s a sense of control

    Reply
  29. From Loretta:
    Candice, the excerpt I read was truly harrowing, but I have vowed to look up the diaries someday and get more detail. I do think that for a writer–which she was–writing about a horrifying experience is a way of coming to terms with it. When we write, we are controlling the words, and at least that’s a sense of control

    Reply
  30. From Loretta:
    Candice, the excerpt I read was truly harrowing, but I have vowed to look up the diaries someday and get more detail. I do think that for a writer–which she was–writing about a horrifying experience is a way of coming to terms with it. When we write, we are controlling the words, and at least that’s a sense of control

    Reply

Leave a Comment