Diphtheria and Pittsylvania County

By Sarah E. Mitchell

“In the neighborhood of Pig[g] River, Pittsylvania [C]ounty, the diphtheria has been raging to an alarming extent for some three weeks or more. Over fifty deaths have occurred in one week. The doctors are unable to cope with it. Numbers of persons have died within twenty-four hours after taking it.”

- The Halifax Advertiser, Sept. 15, 1882

Diphtheria was a much-feared and not-fully-understood disease in the 1800's. Dr. Chase's Third Last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician (1891) described graphically the disease:

“The disease begins in the form of a whitish spot on one or both tonsils, unaccompanied at first by fever, and attended with only a trifling degree of uneasiness in swallowing. By and by this spot enlarges; its edges become of a florid color, fever steals on, and the act of swallowing becomes painful. A slough gradually forms, with evident ulceration at its edges; the fever increases, and headache and restlessness supervene. The partial separation of the slough, together with the rosy color of the edges of the ulcer, with the moderate degree of fever for some days, promise a favorable issue. But very unexpectedly, slowness of breathing, without either difficulty [or] wheezing takes place, with excessive and sudden sinking of the living powers; and it generally happens that within a day from this change the fatal event occurs; the breathing at first falls to eighteen respirations in the minute, then to sixteen, to twelve, and finally to ten or eight….”

In the late 1800's the cause of the disease was unclear — claims were made that it was caused by fungus growth on damp wallpaper or by eating too much pork in the diet (in fact, it was suggested that parents put children on a bread, milk, and vegetable diet when diphtheria outbreaks occurred in the vicinity of one's home). Today we know that diphtheria is a bacterial infection that can be and is generally prevented by vaccinations — although in certain parts of the world it remains a health risk. (By the way, the Iditarod Dog Race in Alaska is run every year in memory of the 1925 race to get diphtheria serum from Anchorage, Alaska to Rome, Alaska when an outbreak occurred and threatened many lives.)

The remedies suggested back in the late 1800's ranged from very primitive to perhaps deadly all by themselves! Sucking on ice; gargling with lemon juice, sulphur, a combination of mercury and other items, or a mix of chlorine and water; a poultice of sliced onions and salt pork placed on the neck; swabbing with calomel; or placing a cloth soaked with turpentine on the neck were all possible cures. Another suggestion was to burn a mixture of tar and turpentine spirits beside the patient's bed! (Obviously, none of these remedies should be tried today.)


Note


Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County


An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina


Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Melton: Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On


Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Melton: Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town



This article is posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.