Category Archives: Medicine and Health

The Poor Man’s Stomach Remedy

cup of chamomile tea

Chamomile tea

A recent post discussed Rush’s Pills, a commonly-prescribed remedy for just about any disease in the early nineteenth century. Being able to use Rush’s pills to treat ailments depended, of course, on having the money to buy them. I was curious as to how much the pills would cost and whether a normal person would be able to afford them. According to the invoice for the Lewis and Clark expedition, 50 dozen of Rush’s Bilious Pills cost $5.00, or 10 cents per dozen. That’s not so much, until we remember that a dollar in 1803 was not the same as a dollar in 2014. I put the cost through an inflation calculator and found that what cost $5 in 1803 would cost $75.32 in 2012.  Considering that is the price for 50 dozen of the pills, I suppose that is still not out of reach; it would put the price at $1.50 per dozen, a little more than today’s cost for Equate Maximum-Strength Laxative Tablets at Walmart.com ($4.18 for 4 dozen). Continue reading

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“There’s Nothing Like a Good Purging”

To our 21st-century ears, that phrase probably sounds like the opposite of anything we would ever think (just ask anyone who has prepped for a colonoscopy!). Yet, one might actually hear someone say such a thing–and sincerely mean it–in the 19th century, another sign of how much life has changed in only 200 years.

A reader asked about the “Rush’s Thunderbolts” that play a role in His Promise True, so although the topic is a little gross, here is some information about one of the popular medical remedies at the beginning of the 19th century.

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First, it’s important to understand that people in the early 19th century had a very different understanding of how the human body works than we have today. In many ways, medical understanding hadn’t progressed very far past that of the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates developed the theory of “humours,” which said the body had four fluids that corresponded to the basic elements of the earth–blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile (it was also thought these corresponded to certain personality types). The goal of health was to keep these four humours in balance; an imbalance resulted in various kinds of illness, depending on the exact nature of the imbalance.  I don’t want to get too deeply into the theory, but each humour had certain characteristics, so by observing the symptoms of the illness, a doctor could determine (the theory goes) the type of imbalance and apply a treatment that would bring the body back into balance. So, for example, if a person had a fever (hot, dry symptoms, indicating an excess of hot, dry, yellow bile), the treatment would be to apply the opposite–a cold bath. If a person had digestive problems, it was an indication of an excess of black bile, which had to be eliminated, often by purging. A good, thorough explanation of the way this theory informed medical practice through the first part of the 19th century is in the book The Health of the Country by Conevery Valencius.  

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Dr. Benjamin Rush (painting by Peale)

One of the best-known proponents of purging (although he didn’t subscribe to the theory of humours) was Benjamin Rush, who was probably the most famous medical practitioner in the new United States. It is a sign of Rush’s prominence that Meriwether Lewis consulted with Rush when preparing for the Corps of Discovery’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Rush advised Lewis that “gently opening the bowels by means of one, two, or more of the purging pills” was an excellent measure to prevent “indisposition” (Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 89).  Lewis ordered fifty dozen of the pills, sold as “Rush’s pills,” but popularly known as “Thunderclappers” or “Rush’s Thunderbolts,” no doubt a testament to the violent power of the purgative!

Rush had patented the formula for the pills, which included two potent laxative agents, jalap and calomel. According to one source, these pills were large, about four times the size of today’s aspirin tablets.  Jalap was made from the dried tuber of a Mexican plant, while calomel is another name for mercurous chloride, a mercury compound. Although people realized mercury was poisonous, they believed calomel was different, and it was used to treat all kinds of complaints, including syphllis. While calomel was extremely popular as a treatment, it was also, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, responsible for horrific death by mercury poisoning for thousands of Americans. Despite growing concern about calomel by the middle of the 19th century, it continued to be used as a drug in the United States until the late 1960s.

Fortunately, for the character in His Promise True, only one dose of Rush’s pills was given. Yet the consequences of that dose are meant to remind us modern readers that the medical treatment we take so much for granted today has come a long, long way in the past 200 years.

Sources:

Ambrose, S. E. (1996). Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Higby, G.J. (2006). Rush’s Bilious Pills. In Discovering Lewis and Clark [online]. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2014, from http://lewis-clark.org/content/content-article.asp?ArticleID=2564

Schmid, J. (2009). Beautiful Black Poison. For the Weston A. Price Foundation website. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2014, from http://www.westonaprice.org/environmental-toxins/beatiful-black-poison

University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center. (2013). Penn Biographies: Benjamin Rush. Retrieved Jan. 4, 2014, from http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/rush_benj.html

Valencius, C. (2004). The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land. New York: Basic Books.

 

 

 

 

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