April 11th, 2012
In late June 1800, Samuel Hodgdon wrote to Israel Wheelen ordering him to fumigate the public stores in Philadelphia. The objective was not only to kill insects but mainly to prevent contagion; summer was the usual time for outbreaks of yellow fever and fumigation was believed to help stop the spread of disease.
Hodgdon recommended that Wheelen use nitre or brimstone (sulfur) for the fumigation. In 1795 the British had carried out a successful experiment on the hospital ship Union using a combination of concentrated vitriolic acid and nitrate of potash (sulfuric acid and potassium nitrate), conducting twice daily fumigation to prevent the spread of a fever. Brimstone, or sulfur, had been used to clear diseased air from ships since the 1750s, and vinegar was also supposed to help clear the air of infection. The prevailing medical theory of the time held that diseases spread through the air in a cloud, or miasma; therefore clearing or treating the air would reduce the risk of disease transmission.
As a side benefit, the combination of gas from the nitrate or sulfur and the liberal application of vinegar afterwards might well have kept bugs away from the stores. That may have been what Hodgdon meant when he referred to the “preservation of the woolen goods.” Even if the practice of fumigation did nothing to prevent the spread of diseases, it at least had some benefit when it came to insects and other pests.
For more on fumigation and the Union experiment, see the entry on Contagion in Encycopaedia or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature (Philadelphia: Printed by Budd and Bartran for Thomas Dobson, 1803).
March 14th, 2012
In July 1792, General Anthony Wayne opened a letter to Secretary of War Henry Knox with concerns about small pox among the troops. The prevalence of small pox in Pittsburgh had led him to inoculate a small group of soldiers, but this was only a temporary fix as new detachments were arriving with the possibility of more soldiers who had neither been inoculated nor had the disease.
Wayne was reluctant to establish a routine of constant inoculation, risking the health of those soldiers affected. Inoculation, after all, involved infecting the person; while most people survived, there was always a risk of serious illness and death. Wayne proposed separating those who were still susceptible to small pox, sending them to the block house at Big Beaver, at least until Knox could offer an opinion on whether to proceed with inoculation.
Knox approved of the plan to separate the vulnerable from the infected and immune. He considered July a very bad time to attempt inoculation, and suggested that it could be done one the troops were in winter quarters. The decision to wait until later in the year may have been inspired by prevailing medical wisdom of the time. In a 1791 essay Observations on the small-pox and inoculation published in Edinburgh, Scotland, surgeon Alexander Aberdour asserted that winter was the best season for inoculation, “though it may be done at any time when the air is cool” (74). On the other hand, Knox may also have simply wanted to wait until it would be easier for the War Department to lose time and possibly men to the process of inoculation.
Source: Aberdour, Alexander. Observations on the small-pox and inoculation: to which is prefixed a criticism upon Dr. Robert Walker’s late publication on the subject, by Alexander Aberdour surgeon in Alloa. Edinburgh: Printed for J. Elder, 1791.
February 22nd, 2012
In April 1792, Isaac Craig sent Captain Jonathan Cass some supplies for the sick men under his command: five pounds sugar, two pounds of tea, and four pounds of chocolate. These three items also show up in lists of hospital stores throughout the 1790s. Why? Were they being used as medicine?
Not exactly. Medical theory and practice of the time concerned itself not only with the ailment at hand but with the diet of the invalid. Tea was believed to act as a sedative and sugar had been used as a medical additive for centuries. Chocolate was not only used to improve the taste of some medicines, but was a part of the recommended diet for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, prominent Philadelphia physician, mentions chocolate in his Medical Inquiries and Observations, Volume 1, as a part of the diet for a person preparing to be inoculated against smallpox: “Tea, coffee, and even weak chocolate, with biscuit or dry toast, may be used as usual.” Chocolate was also used in cases of consumption (tuberculosis), asthma, yellow fever, and cholera. Chocolate was useful because it was fairly easy to digest while providing nourishment. Consumption and other diseases caused the patient to waste away; chocolate’s fatty content could reverse the trend and hopefully aid in recovery.
The chocolate, tea, and sugar that Craig sent from Pittsburgh for Cass’ invalids were not, precisely, medicine. Nonetheless, they were intended to help soldiers regain their health and get back to duty by providing a “healthy” diet.