19th Century Remedies For Contagious Fevers

In the early part of the nineteenth century, contagious fevers were one of the most common causes of death. Because of poor hygienic and environmental conditions, these diseases spread rapidly and there was only so little medicine and science could do at the time. But what did doctors prescribe to cure people and stop the dissemination of the illness? A medical authority in Edinburgh recommended the following remedies for contagious fevers:

1. As few persons as possible should be employed in attending upon the sick. The sphere of the action of contagion being in general very limited (perhaps to a few feet), a great deal of the risk of infection may be avoided by the attendants being aware of this circumstance, and therefore, though in the same apartment, taking care not to stand long very near to the sick person. They ought also to avoid breathing over the person that is ill, that they may not inhale the vapour arising from his body, and therefore should turn their backs to him as much as possible. When near him, a handkerchief moistened with vinegar may be kept to the nose and mouth; where there is a free circulation of air, they should stand to the windward. The infected should be approached as little as possible in the morning, as the contagion is then more concentrated, and then also absorption more readily takes place. Those who wait upon the sick, or have any intercourse with them, ought to undergo daily ablution with cold water.

2. A constant and free circulation of air should be kept up through the apartment by means of proper ventilation. The greatest attention to cleanliness in every respect ought to be observed. All superfluous furniture should be removed from the chamber of the sick, and likewise clothes, especially those which are woollen, as these are found to attract and retain contagious matter forcibly.

3. As nothing has been found so efficacious as fumigation by means of the vapour of nitrous acid, as recommended by Drs Johnstone and C Smyth, this should be constantly resorted to. The following is the method of practising it:- Take half an ounce of vitriolic acid, and put it into a cup, saucer, pipkin, or other earthen vessel, and warm it by placing it over a lamp, or in heated sand; then take one ounce of powdered nitre, and add a little of it from time to time to the warm acid: as it is added, red fumes will rise, which are to be diffused through the apartment by carrying the apparatus to different parts of it. Several such vessels may be employed and placed in various parts of the chamber, according to its size. One may suffice where the room is not very large. The process may be repeated several times a day. These fumes do not prove injurious, and are breathed with impunity by the sick and attendants, only occasioning at first a slight and temporary coughing. The instant any individual in a family is suspected to be attacked with fever, fumigation and ventilation ought immediately to be had recourse to, in order to prevent the propagation of the infection.

4. Clothes belonging to an infected person, or clothes or furniture suspected to be at all impregnated with any contagious matter, ought to be washed and fumigated before being used.

The author also expresses his opinion about amulets that were thought by some people to have healing properties..

As to the amulets worn by many individuals, containing camphor, &c. they can only be useful by inspiring confidence; but by inspiring a confidence beyond their merits, they may prevent the adoption of those means that are of real utility.

Further reading:
Repository of arts, literature, fashions &c, July 1817