I had a cold this week past, and quite miserable it made me, too. It got me thinking about illness, and historical perceptions of illness.
I love words, and old words are best, and one of my favorites has long been catarrh. It sounds just like what it is. The Times (another one of my loves) has a hilarious column on the subject, originally published in 1865. It makes me want to write a chapbook, “Letters on Cattarh.” The first known use of the word is in the 15th century, so chances are good it turns up in 18th century usage. In fact, it turns up in the Boston Post Boy of Jan 1 1736 not as a cause of death, but as the reason for the state of George Bethune’s lungs.
Scanning America’s Historical Newspapers (yes, I do this for fun) turns up more than 1,400 hits before 1783 alone for “illness,” most resulting in death, though some are described as past, and disfiguring. My money’s on smallpox for those.
Catarrh turns up 27 times. Here it is in the Providence Gazette and Country Journal of 1768. It’s from an extract of the minutes of the American Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. I can imagine the gentlemen sitting with pipes and punch bowl, grumbling to each other, “We can send a ship to Suriname, but we can’t cure the common catarrh.” Or perhaps it is the ladies who say it, as the gentlemen come stumbling home from the meeting to Promote Useful Knowledge.
La Grippe, as experienced by poor Adelaide, is influenza. The etymology suggests a 1770-80 French origin, from gripper, to seize suddenly. That’s pretty descriptive, if you’ve ever had flu. La Grippe turns up in the index of the Philadelphia Repository and Weekly Register, January 1, 1803, as “prevalent at Paris,” and on April 9, 1803, we can read the little article about it.
On April 11, 1803, in the Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer there appears an “Extract of a private letter” describing interments of 400 per day, and 4000 in a ten-day period. This was serious, serious stuff. Facing illness today, we’re so much better off than people were in 1803, or even 1903. Germ theory is only 150 years old at the most, and really, thank goodness for it.
For more on the various diseases and epidemics of the past, I give you the Contagion database from Harvard. It’s an excellent collection of articles and links to additional reading, from smallpox to influenza. I feel better already.