Monday, July 13, 2009

Calomel and Pluto Water for Carrie Hardy: Dark, Chthonic "Cures"

Related to the ongoing serialization of Ypsilanti high school math teacher Carrie Hardy's 1919 diary.

Readers of tomorrow's diary excerpt from Carrie Hardy will note the onset of a terrible illness that debilitates her for much of the summer, to the point that Carrie is nearly frantic about losing her job and wonders, "What will become of me?" Unmarried, she had no safety net--and although her colleagues covered her classes for her, that could only have gone on for so long.

But that's in the future. The key point is that at the outset of her illness, Carrie is prescribed arguably the worst medicine ever--and one of the commonest in the past couple of centuries. Calomel.

Calomel is a toxic mercury compound and was used in the school of "heroic" medicine. Heroic medicine has been defined as "a given cure was proportional to the fear of the disease." The "heroic" applies to the patient--violent purgatives, bloodletting, emetics--all these rough treatments belong to heroic medicine. As does calomel.

Calomel was thought to be a purgative because it caused heavy salivation and had a laxative effect. It also loosened teeth, caused oral ulcers, caused hair loss, sometimes [warning!: graphic photo] facial deformities, and unbeknownst to the physicians of the time, heavy metal poisoning (Louisa May Alcott is only one of many who are thought to have died of the effects of calomel).

You will note that after Carrie takes calomel, she enters a long period of debility. I wish you could see her handwriting in her diary. It goes from smooth and confident to frail and trembly, as if she suffered from Parkinson's (tremors are one possible side effect of calomel use). You do have to ask--was she sick with an undiagnosed disease? Or was she suffering from mercury poisoning?

Readers will note she also takes "Pluto Water," a salty mineral water with a strong laxative effect. Pluto Water was popular into the 40s (Wikipedia notes that Sanford on the old TV sitcom Sanford and Son often referred to it, and that Louis Armstrong used it).

A modern analog to the age of heroic medicine are the modern regimens of cancer drugs and treatments, which also extract an almost unbearable amount of pain and suffering from the patient they cure. In the age of heroic medicine, every treatment was similarly drastic--one of the reasons that led to the rise of much more appealing patent medicines and nostrums--though we'll save that tale for another day.

Carrie, hang in there--and please, dear, do stop taking that hideous calomel!

9 comments :

Dusty D said...

I don't know why 19th-century medicine interests me so much, but it does: reading about it, I am spellbound. I read about it every chance I get, but I should make a more disciplined effort to round up some authoritative books on the subject. If it were a class at WCC, I'd be really tempted to take it, just for, uh, "fun."

Book recommendation: "Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War." To be read as remotely from any mealtime as is possible.

An interest in this subject also leads to perfectly delightful dinner table conversation, as DD's long-suffering husband can attest.

TeacherPatti said...

I'm feeling a kinship with my fellow teacher. I wish I could whip out the Ouija board and ask her what it was like to teach back then...I guess I'd have to explain what "now" is like. We'd have to start with the idea of computers and go from there...I wonder what she'd think of NCLB!!!

Dusty D said...

Teacher Patti: Well, according to a comment left earlier by one of Carrie's relatives, she had a reputation for being stern and did not hesitate to slap someone's gum out of their mouth. So maybe she'd be just fine with some C's being LB.

On the other hand, she shows concern for Catherine, who was doing poorly in school.

Interesting question, though (I'm a former teacher): could NCLB work in a 1919 school classroom?

TeacherPatti said...

Go TeacherCarrie!

I didn't know you were a teacher! How cool :) You have an excellent point...given that they had one room schoolhouses, and there weren't those BS "highly qualified" tests, you could teach whatever you wanted and NCLB says NO! DO NOT WANT! to that. (Don't get me started on the whole "highly qualified" thing!!)

Also, I don't think there were standardized tests, right? I think they just focused on the 3 Rs. Which, IMO, is not necessarily a bad thing!

Dusty D said...

Hm, good question. I don't know if there were standardized tests. I remember Allie was examined in all her subjects at the end of the 1874 school year (and got a 95 in Latin!)

My understanding is that the NCLB guidelines are simply inappropriate for, especially, special ed kids.

Related question: what services were available for special ed kids in Allie's 1874 or Carrie's 1919 classrooms? I wonder.

Jennifer Redfern said...

It's very interesting, I do feel bad for her. I mean she is my Aunt and i wished that I could tell to stop. But that was back then.

TeacherPatti said...

NCLB is awful for special ed kids because it forces mainstreaming, whether or not the student is ready. So, my kids who can't see and are below grade level trot off to Algebra classes with no Braille books.

NCLB would have you have the cognitively impaired 7th grade kid sit in the back of the room doing 2+2 while everyone else does Algebra but at least s/he is getting instruction from a highly qualified teacher!!! Because kids really feel great when they are the only ones in class who can't do what everyone else is doing.

(Many, esp. parents, disagree with my feelings on NCLB. Sadly, many parents just want their kids to be "normal" and in "normal" classes and I'm sorry to say that the kid may not be "normal" and all of the mainstreaming in the world won't change that). And yeah, yeah teachers are supposed to differentiate their instruction to include all students...but I live in reality where that rarely happens.

At that time, I'm willing to be that special ed kids were institutionalized or just kept at home :( They did have Perkins School for the Blind (where Annie Sullivan went) but things were pretty sad for special ed back then :(

Dusty D said...

Teacher Patti: That is fascinating. Yeah, I imagine special ed kids were kept at home or put in an institution. Wow. However, some of the institutions/asylums, which in the 1870s or so kind of lumped together Downs syndrome/special ed/fetal alcohol/&c. kids treated them with what even by today's standards would be compassionate and good care. It was only later, in the 20th century, that the stereotypes of horrid asylums grew out of a decline in institutional care. But at any rate.

Having a kid do 2 + 2 in the back of an Algebra class instead of doing skills and tasks appropriate to his or her abilities, that he or she can succeed at and feel good about, seems very misguided and pointless, not to mention stigmatizing, to me.

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