Health 1849-1899

By 1849 health care in Lawrence County was at a watershed. New discoveries and applications of new medicines, knowledge of the human body, and the growing professionalism of medical practice would be a benefit to the new county.

The main cause of poor health was the lack of knowledge about sanitation. People just did not realize the connection between unsanitary conditions and sickness. They tossed garbage and human wastes into streets and yards. Horse drawn vehicles also added to the wastes in the city streets. Insects were common pests. Flies and mosquitoes were numerous. While an annoyance, the insects were not suspected of spreading disease.

The lack of concern about public health and sanitation resulted in much sickness. Summer through fall was known as the “sickly season” with typhoid, dysentery, as well as smallpox and cholera. Winter and spring brought measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis, scarlet fever and whooping cough. Accidents and assorted mishaps–burns, bites, injuries often proved to be fatal if the victim was far from a doctor’s care. And doctor’s were few and far between. The few doctors tried valiantly to combat illness without the benefit of antibiotics, anesthesia, or proper equipment. But sometimes they contributed to the patients ill health. Most early doctors were unaware of contagion and many failed to associate unsanitary conditions with disease.

The standard cure was to cleanse the system by the use of cathartics (bowels), emetics (stomach) and diuretics (urinary tract). Other tonics were give to promote a “copious” perspiration. Because of the lack of anesthesia, little surgery was attempted. Amputation was performed if necessary. Childbirth was very chancy, any abnormality in the delivery of the child usually led to the death of the mother. Still the average family had eight children.

After the Civil War, anesthesia and antiseptics were available. Doctors also were better trained, but there was still little they could do to overcome the overcrowded living conditions and poor diet. Epidemics still ran rampant. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that water purification systems became part of every city. While that helped, it had little effect as long as school children still used a common drinking cup, and the same sanitary facilities.