Nina Daniels



Wednesday, February 2, 1949

The children of to-day have a hundred-fold better chance to grow up healthy than those of a couple of generations ago. The ignorance of medical men as well as the laity, of the commonest laws of physiology, seems now to have been appalling. Comparing the scientific attainments of then and now reveals the great strides made along that line even in 50 years.

The discovery of the X-rays revolutionized the treatment as well as the cause of many ills to which flesh is heir. The very ignorance of the geography and chemistry of man's inner country led to a belief and practice of absurd and superstitious notions which were often far more injurious than curative to the victim. Owing to this, any quack could prescribe any stuff he pleased, and any mid-wife could use awful methods when ushering into the world a mite, who, as well as the mother, was at her mercy.

A Rusty Dipper

Only a generation or so ago at least 100,000 mothers and often their babies lost their lives in child-birth in this country alone each year. Much disease and death were due primarily to an ignorance or indifference to plain, simple hygiene. At country schools an ancient, rusty dipper never cleaned was passed around the "little red school room" from child to child to slake their inevitable thirst. The pail must have been actually lined with all kinds of bacteria when after years of use it became too rusty to hold water which had, in the first place, been drawn from a spring in a pasture, perhaps. So each child added his germs of TB, typhoid, sore throat and other communicable diseases to the general collection.

It was the second greatest honor of the day to "pass the water" in the dreadful dipper, the first being the honor of bringing the water from the spring. The teacher must have the first drink, and seemed as immune as her flock to the horrors of the ancient and perilous receptacles. The parents of 20th century children would be horrified if their offspring were thus exposed to such dangerous methods. Do not say the world is not growing better when modern research has resulted in your child being surrounded by every means possible to protect him from dangerous methods to his health, even life itself. In such conditions of sad ignorance and unenlightenment, quacks and patent medicine vendors flourished unhindered, and even with the encouragement of sufferers desperate for relief from aches and pains, and misunderstood and therefore unintelligently relieved. Village stores, even those in larger towns, dealt in all kinds of nostrums. Taken internally they could quickly relieve kidney diseases, cramps, consumption, fevers, colds, dyspepsia, liver complaint, boils, impurities of the blood, sleeplessness, "that tired feeling," colic, cholera infantum, and "run-down-condition," which latter included any disorders which may have been omitted. If you had corns, crick in the back, bunions, sprains, headache, bad teeth, baldness, rheumatism or any other pains, you could rub the same medicine on the outside and get an equally miraculous cure.

Patent Medicine

Quite a good many patent medicines were sold from house to house by pedlars, or could be obtained through the mails. My parents believed in all kinds of remedies, domestic and foreign, and dosed themselves and children with trusting impartiality. My paternal grandmother (Orillia Hackett Benham, born in Massachusetts in 1801) was addicted to herb teas as befitted one who inherited her knowledge of human ills and their relief from a grandmother who probably got many ideas from the original Americans. At any rate, the concoctions which she would brew from weeds and roots were terrific to the taste and perhaps did no harm to the patient being treated, and did little good either.

Germs Unknown

Many childish ills were laid to "worms," There are such things, I am aware, but a child is not infested with them all the time and often their symptoms portended real illness which needed intelligent treatment. But let a baby be feverish or cross, and he received a dosage maybe of worm medicine. Or perchance he got a dose of a highly advertised remedy which probably contained more or less opium, known as soothing syrup. How any part of that bygone population survived is problematical to modern life. One had only to go through an old churchyard or cemetery to see the extent of infant's and young folks' mortality. Having no knowledge of the germ theory, no X-rays, little tho't of infection or contamination of others, there is little wonder that an epidemic was something to be dreaded. When I and my contemporaries were small children, some advancement had been made by the medical profession. But cure-alls and catnip tea were still used. My mother had implicit faith in a certain ointment, evil smelling and evil looking. Also, a fiery potent which she got from a traveling medical man was used equally for outside or inside ailments. The other children's parents had them, too. So if in our rough and dangerous pastimes we hurt a knee climbing fences or trees, we were apt to be smeared with a greasy mess or vigorously rubbed with a liniment which penetrated smartingly to the marrow and smelled to heaven for days. Also, soaking the feet drew the blood from whatever part of the anatomy seemed to have too much. Many of us suffered from "quinsy" and toothache, but out-side applications only were resorted to, not knowing that we were created with tonsils which could not be reached with swathings of ointment and that teeth needed careful watching and care.

Perhaps one of the worst contraptions of the powers of darkness was the porous plaster which was used for every ailment we had. Did we strain a back dragging an old flat-bottomed boat into the river or climbing onto the "rocks?" Did we take a chill from wading in November for get fallen arches from ill-fitting shoes? The porous plaster was clapped onto the part afflicted. It was an oblong sheet with small holes in it, made of cloth, medicated with I never knew what, and smeared with glue or an equally sticky substance. Putting it on was not painful but taking it off—"O boy." My father took lots of quinine, a remedy brought from Civil War days.

All those loving parents who suffered with their children are gone. They did the best they knew how for us.



North Country