Monday, October 27, 2014

'Nothing but illness for days'

Close encounters with healthcare emergencies over the past two months have made me thankful for modern medicine. Without it, my 85-year-old mother would have been in her grave instead of in rehab.

Turn-of-the-century medical saddlebag kit was used by a
North Carolina doctor who moved to Florida. Photo credit:
University of Florida College of Medicine
Had this been the late 1800s Florida, the outcome almost certainly would have been different. To begin with,  life expectancy in the 1880 to 1890 period was a dismal 40 to 45, according to one chart from the University of Oregon. 

Second, the operations my mother underwent wouldn't have been options because they didn't yet exist. I wouldn't have been around to help care for her. I would have been long gone - lost at age 11 to infection because the penicillin that cured me in real life hadn't yet been discovered. (A British professor named Alexander Fleming discovered it in 1928. The American Chemical Society has a great webpage about the history.)

Pioneers on the Florida frontier weren't worried so much about cures and treatments that hadn't yet been developed. They cared about access to the best medical service available. And it usually wasn't found in newly settled communities in tropical wildernesses. Florida tourist centers may have billed themselves as havens for invalids, but settlers faced other challenges. 

"It has been nothing but illness for days," wrote Julia Daniels Moseley in a short letter to her husband in August 1884 when their children were sick (102).  "Anxious nights and anxious days ... The boys are safe now. The fear is passed. I am too tired to rest." The letter's terseness underscores the severity of her tenseness and dread. Moseley's other letters are far longer, and breezy and chatty. She was a pioneer in a community named Limona near Tampa. You can read her letters in Come to My Sunland, edited by Julia Winifred Moseley and Betty Powers Crislip (University Press of Florida, 1998).

In 1892, Florida tourist Emma Gilpin hoped to ward off mumps by being armed with a bottle of homeopathic pellets. In a letter to a relative, she asked that the remedy be mailed to her in Miami where mumps were "running through the house" (61) (Public Faces - Private Lives, Women in South Florida - 1870s-1910s, by Karen Davis, Pickering Press, 1990). A week later, she wrote about a weak-hearted visitor who caught a cold, nearly got pneumonia, and died soon after. Her words are poignant:

"I have been up all night for the past three nights but the most careful nursing was of no avail and last night she died. The Doctor stood over her day and night but without any hope" (62).  Permanent relocation to Florida held no appeal for snowbird Gilpin, in part because of the lack of health care. 

Another pioneer quoted in Davis's book was Fort Lauderdale's first schoolteacher, Ivy Cromartie Stranahan. She grew up near Florida's Peace River, and wrote that "Our medicines were herbs found in the woods" (97). They included a sasparilla spring tonic and a poultice made from "thick, juicy India collard leaves which grew in the lowlands" (97). Other home remedies included quinine for malaria, calomel for fevers, and turpentine for bites and stings. A trip to the doctor could involve a journey of 125 miles, as it did for Ella Dimick. Davis writes that Dimick had to take her daughter from Palm Beach to Rockledge for medical care in 1878. 

Then, as now, Sunshine State supporters put PR spins on their pitches. In her 1873 collection of sketches, Palmetto Leaves (University Press of Florida,  1999), Harriet Beecher Stowe insisted that Florida's malarial fevers "are of a mild type, and easily managed" (122).  Her chapter, "Florida for Invalids," actually presents a fairly balanced view of what invalids could expect from a stay in the sunshine. Of many salient points, my favorite is this one: "It may, however, comfort the hearts of visitors to Florida to know, that, if the climate here is not ... just what they would have it, it is about the best there is going"  (133). Some things even modern medicine can't improve on.

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