I apologise for my unexpectedly long absence from the blog, occasioned by a nasty cold followed by an even worse chest infection. But now that I’m on the mend thanks to a course of antibiotics, I have the luxury of sufficient oxygen in my blood stream to reflect on colds in days of yore.
While nobody ever dies from the common cold, complications from colds can be debilitating or even fatal: chest infections, pneumonia, pleurisy… And these sorts of problems regularly developed in eighteenth-century patients. For fun, I trawled through the database for symptoms nearest my own to see how patients would have treated their colds. It’s not a pretty picture: lengthy and dangerous illnesses and ineffective and uncomfortable treatments.
Patients rarely consulted Sloane for recent or urgent problems, but colds often slipped into the chronic category. Elizabeth Southwell, in an undated letter,* noted that her cold had already lasted two weeks. In 1708, Elizabeth Howland referred to hers lasting three weeks. Lord Lempster, who had a chronic lung condition, had already been suffering from a cold for two weeks when his doctor James Keill wrote to Sloane on June 22, 1710. As if that wasn’t long enough, the winner of these misery sweepstakes was the Earl of Thanet who reported on July 31, 1712 that he had been taking remedies for is cold since June 12.
These weren’t just gracefully fading colds, moreover, but ones that worried sufferers. Keill had anticipated Lord Lempsters’s death, given his laboured breathing; the patient remained seriously ill when Keill wrote again on July 9. Lord Lempster, Southwell and Howland had all started to spit occasional blood in their phlegm. Southwell’s cough was so violent she had given up on taking most remedies, except diacodium (a painkiller made of poppies). The Earl of Thanet and Howland both suffered from chest pains, which can indicate the onset of a serious chest ailment, while the Earl and Southwell had sore throats. Howland was also constantly hot, which she attributed to a sharpness and heat in her blood. Colds that wouldn’t clear up might have different–and apparently hot–effects, as Dr. Keill suggested when diagnosing Lord Lempster’s problems as a stoppage of blood rather than the more serious inflammation of the lungs. Either way, these were serious complications from what started as a cold.
Although there were other remedies used, the treatments focused primarily on diet, bleeding, blistering and purging. The Earl and Howland both drank milk, then known for its healthful benefits in lung ailments. The Earl and Southwell ate fruit–possibly to keep their bowels regular. Southwell had eaten figs, while the Earl had tried and rejected oranges (proposing instead pears). All four patients were bled. Southwell, for example, had been bled twice and Lord Lempster at least three times (10 ounces, 8 ounces, and 8 ounces). Keill also suggested that Lord Lempster try blisters and purging; the Earl initially used blisters, but thought a bit of purging could also be useful. Other remedies described included powder of pearl (the Earl), chalybeates to cause vomiting (Lempster), barley water, linseed oil, sarsaparilla and China tea (Howland). The main goal of the remedies was to reduce inflammation of the lungs, break up the stoppages of the blood, or to cool the blood.
The fates of these eighteenth-century patients? Elizabeth Howland (c. 1658- 1719) and the Earl of Thanet (1644-1729) lasted many years after. Elizabeth Southwell (1674-1709) was the youngest sufferer and she died within a few years of her illness (though not necessarily related). Lord Lempster (1648-1711) was already chronically ill before he contracted his cold, and continued poorly for another year and a half before he died.
Whatever the rationale behind eighteenth-century explanations of and treatments for colds, I’m just glad that I didn’t have to suffer bleeding, purging, and blisters in addition to the misery of a chest infection!
*After 1705 when she had a son. The letter refers to visiting her young ill son.