February 5, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)
Eat no green apples or you'll droop,
Be careful not to get the croup,
Avoid the chicken-pox and such
And don't fall out of windows much.
Edward Anthony (1895-1971)
I have been reading the medical essays of Lewis Thomas and they reminded me of my past experiences with illness.
I had the usual childhood diseases in my childhood. With the exception of measles and chicken pox, I don't know what the diseases were called, but I do recall the treatments.
A sore throat or tonsillitis was treated by gargling with "yellow throat mixture," which tasted awful and did absolutely nothing. When I had a cough, the treatment was either a mustard plaster, Vicks, or both. Vicks is still around, and it does as much good as it did then; which is no good at all. Since it smelled medicinal, it did give you the illusion that it was helping. Mustard plasters are relics of those dark ages. My mother would mix mustard powder and flour and wrap the paste in a piece of cloth. The cloth was placed on my chest and left on until my chest turned red. I remember asking her frequently, "Is it red yet?" A more ridiculous procedure was "cupping." I saw my uncle get it for some chest complaint. A man would have a lot of shot-glass size cups and an alcohol swab that was lit. The flaming swab was swizzled in the cup and the cup placed on his back, where it stuck due to the suction of the cooling alcohol vapor. A lot of cups were placed on his back. After a while the cups were removed, leaving round swollen red marks on the skin where the cups had been. This was supposed to cure his cough. Since his cough went away, the assumption was that the treatment worked. It worked as well as the mustard plaster or the Vicks, which is to say that it did absolutely nothing.
The drug that really helped was aspirin. While it didn't cure anything, it did reduce the fever and provide some pain relief. The treatment for very high fever is still the same as it was then; either a sponge bath with alcohol or immersion in a bathtub full of tepid water.
As a child, I was injected with diphtheria toxoid, which would keep me from dying if I caught diphtheria. The horrible disease smallpox was prevented by vaccination.
Broken bones could be skillfully set in plaster of paris, and appendicitis was curable by removing the appendix.
Our physician was a good man who did the best that he could with the tools that he had, which were mostly the ability to diagnose and separate the serious from the trivial. He eventually got an office fluoroscope with which he could see what was going on inside my chest or belly. He showed me my father's heart beating. It might also have caused the breast cancer that I developed some 60 years later.
When I was raising my own children, there were antibiotics for bacterial infections, and they really did work by killing the bacteria that were causing the disease. Viral diseases were still as incurable as they are today. I vividly remember when my four daughters got measles. One got it and the other three followed. My wife and I worked two shifts, night and day, until they all recovered. They were mighty sick. Measles could be a killer then. Now it can be prevented. Parents nowadays don't know how lucky they are never to have seen a child with that disease.
It is now a different world and most childhood diseases can now be cured or prevented. Now we have other, relatively trivial, things to worry about and the media makes sure that we know about them.
Return to the Medicine Home Page
Return to Ira's Home Page