Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The New West: Mysterious 19th Century Ailments

As part of my personal mission to learn more about the country I live in (and to have fun doing it), I'm reading a fascinating book called "The New West." It's a straight-forward collection of reports from the North-West Mounted Police filed during 1889.

These prototypical mounties had only been around for 16 years by that point. They were still suffering growing pains as they tried to keep up with explosive settlement, the coming of the railroad, forest fires, cattle theft, and some decidedly uneasy relationships with the Native Americans.

I've only just started reading the book, but I'm struck by the reports filed by Senior Surgeon A. Jukes (who, I've just discovered, testified that Louis Riel was not insane) and his group of assistant surgeons. They provide handy tables of all the illnesses they treated during the year. Many of them are easy for a 21st century reader to understand, but there are plenty of cases of Freaky 19th Century Ailments with weird names.

To educate you (and myself), I've done a bit of research. And if you're a really dedicated hypochondriac, try these ones on for size:
  • Two officers spent almost a month recovering from Bilious Fever. It's an intestinal flu/fever that keeps on coming back to haunt you. I've always assumed this caused your stomach to bloat.
  • Eighteen unfortunate fellows dealt with Cephalalgia, which isn't a deadly tropical amoeba...it's just a headache!
  • Choria took one man seventy days to recover from. It's the infamous St. Vitus' Dance, a symptom of several different illnesses (such as Huntington's disease and rheumatic fever).
  • Lumbago -- AKA lower-back pain -- was pretty popular and easily overcome.
  • I'm totally confused by Odontolgia, which is listed as a "disease of the nervous system." There are lots of online references to Odontologia, but they're all in Spanish and probably refer to some medical field. Maybe a toothache?
  • Good old Catarrh, a chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes.
  • One poor guy caught Furunculus and was still being treated by the time of the report. It's a boil. Why don't we hear about boils and carbuncles anymore? Either because our hygiene is better or because we just call them big pimples nowadays, is my guess.
  • Three (possibly) uncircumsized men complained of Balanitis, a penile inflammation. The Mounted Police didn't have many opportunities to bathe, apparently.
  • Yikes, Desquamative Nephritis took three months to kill a police officer. It's a nasty inflammation of the kidneys.
  • One man had Orchitis, an inflammation of the testicles. But don't worry...he got over it!
  • Two men suffered Eruptions! I have no idea what this means. Testicles again?
  • I sense a trend here...another two men from Calgary spent ten days being treated for Spermatorrhoea, which Swami Sivandra of Rishikesh says has "eaten away the very core of the heart of many brilliant youth." Amazing that a grown man would go to the doctor because he's having wet dreams...those Victorians!
  • Incidentally, there was a single tapeworm lurking around Calgary in 1889, poor lonely thing.
  • Varix was a horribly swollen vein.
  • For guys who were so good with their horses, they sure got kicked by horse a lot.
  • When is a police officer felonous? When he's suffering from an infected fingertip! That would be a good joke. Actually, no, it wouldn't.
All that and only ONE gunshot wound.

Extra-special credit goes to Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms. This just goes to show that no matter what weird thing you're curious about, you'll find a website for it eventually.


Anonymous said...

I think the word they were using is odontalgia--toothache. -algia Greek for ache, sick--"nostalgia," ache for a return (nostos).

Nobody got a "putrid" sore throat? A term used by one of Jane Austen's characters to signify "infectious."

Fun stuff--thanks for sharing.

Adam Thornton said...

Sadly no "putrid sore throats!" Maybe the mounties were too tough for a Jane Austen infection. What a horrible term.

There were, however, cases of "Bruised Frog," "Fistulous Withers," "Lacerated Fetlocks," "Seedy Toes" and "Saddle Galls."

Oh wait, those were the horses.