“Nothing contributes more, perhaps, to preserve a constitution healthy, and to restore it when disordered, than a calm dispassionate state of mind” – From The Means of Preserving Health and Preventing Diseases by Dr. Shadrach Ricketson, 1806.
With everyone being more conscience of health and well-being today, we thought we would take this time to look at some of the health issues of the past and how they were dealt with right here in Dutchess County. Here in the Local History collection are several old books relating to diseases and medicine along with a large collection of old hospital reports from several of the hospitals in the area. Some of our earliest pieces concern the work of Dr. Hunting Sherrill, a doctor who practiced both in Hyde Park and Poughkeepsie and served as the President of the Dutchess Medical Society. Sherrill was born in Stanford NY in 1783 and studied medicine at the Geneva College. He came to practice in Hyde Park in 1809 and married Margaret Mulford in Staatsburg in 1811.
In our collection we have a book that contains two addresses that Sherrill gave before the Dutchess Medical Society in 1819 and 1825. In the first, he mentions the disease known as Bilious remittent, which is a term no longer in use, but it was a fever associated with excessive bile and jaundice. This meant, a yellowish skin, a discoloring of the tongue and in some cases, delirium. Sherrill mentions that the cases were high in 1809 and 1810 but started to decline by 1811 and by the time of his address in 1819, there were very few cases and those that appeared were “of a milder grade.”
The cures varied on case by case bases and included administering “bark (cinchona) bitters, and wine” and sudorifics (a drug that causes sweating). When children were fussy and didn’t want to take the bark bitters, they would be given “Fowler’s Arsenic solution” which of course we now know causes more harm than good. When such remedies didn’t work, Sherrill wrote that the famous Dr. Rush recommended the use of blood-letting with blisters to the wrists and ankles was a helpful cure if all else failed. In 1825 there was an outbreak of measles in Poughkeepsie that he witnessed and blood-letting was the major way they handled that epidemic.
During the outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1819, Sherrill wrote,
“While the inhabitants of our metropolis, and the cities along the sea-board, almost from one end of the territory to the other, have been excited by fears and anxieties, and shunning the seats of pestilence, and fleeing their homes in ‘wild confusion,’ in consequence of the prevalence of malignant disease, which appeared with threatening and alarming devastation, – our country has in general this season enjoyed an unusual degree of health.”
So it would appear that people got a little weird about health crises in the 19th century just like today (we wonder if they had a sudden toilet paper shortage too?). Sherrill went on to make the point that each disease is different and requires special attention as does each case within the patient, and that not all remedies will work with all cases, “the character of the disease, the stage of the case, and the grade of excitement ought to govern the prescriptions.”
The other fascinating work of Dr. Sherrill’s in our collection is a book about the Cholera epidemic of 1832 and 1834 which took place in Poughkeepsie. Cholera was a terrible experience for all who witnessed it. Symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, spasms, and purplish skin. In 1832, Sherrill had moved his practice to Poughkeepsie and found himself in the center of illness. The sickness spread into the surrounding areas around Poughkeepsie and it was treated with an infusion of opiates, cathartics, and sudorifics. Most of the cases that he mentions saw people getting better with the exception of the poor and neglected who received no nursing of any kind.
Dr. Sherrill moved down to New York City in 1840 and continued to practice there until his death in 1866. He is buried in the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. In every era there will be a series of health problems and in some cases they will lead to a local or even a national crisis, but there will always be people working to discover the ways to get us through it all.