Of Time Travel and Typhoid

As a young teenager growing up in the late 1960’s, I had a very romantic ideas about life in previous centuries. Bookworm that I was, I read a lot of historical fiction. I watched Masterpiece Theater faithfully. I loved the customs, the language and the fashions, especially the hoop skirts popular during the Civil War era. If time travel were possible I would have been on the first train out.

Unfortunately for me, my mother was a medical historian and quickly pointed out to me the perils of what passed for medical care in a pre-germ theory world. In fact she didn’t hesitate to give me specifics about the particular problems of being female in that world… complications of childbirth and the mortality rates of infants and children just to name a couple.

Uhhh… on second thought I’ll stay right here in my own century thank you very much. My mother did such a good job of un-romanticizing the past that when I saw the movie Braveheart, looking at Mel Gibson I could only think “nobody had teeth that good in the thirteenth century.” Thanks Mom.

Brig. Gen. Frederick F Russell  developed a typhoid vaccine in 1909.

Brig. Gen. Frederick F Russell developed a typhoid vaccine in 1909.

Anyway, one of the occupational hazards of genealogical research is a lot of exposure to death records. Its always so sad to see that family members died at young ages of diseases that are so easily cured or prevented in our world. One of those diseases was typhoid fever. My great grandmother Della’s older sister died of typhoid at age 26, 4 months after giving birth to her first child. I wondered, what did women in particular know about keeping themselves and their families healthy?

I did a quick search of Godey’s Lady’s Book for typhoid and found an interesting article in the April, 1877 issue. The author obviously still adhered to the conventional wisdom of the day that such diseases were caused by bad air. The article “A Lesson About Disinfectants” said, “The foul gas from sewers, sinks and other so-called conveniences of modern dwellings is the main source of the evil”.

Another article named the new cast-iron stoves as the culprit. Well, as they say, “close, but no cigar”. Now that we know that typhoid, like cholera, was a disease of poor sanitation such ideas would be almost laughable if they weren’t so tragic. Here’s hoping that in 100 years our descendants look at our modern treatment of cancer with the same sad amusement.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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