Consumptions (Wasting of the Body from Ulcers etc.) | 18th Century Medicine

About the author

Edward St. Germain.
Edward St. Germain

Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

Editor’s note
The following is a chapter from the book “Domestic Medicine” written by Dr. William Buchanan in 1785. It provides a fascinating insight into medical knowledge of the time, including the often haphazard and sometimes dangerous techniques used to treat certain injuries and illnesses in the 1700s. We have not edited this book chapter, and as a result it may contain old English spellings of certain words.


A CONSUMPTION is a wasting or decay or the whole body from an ulcer, tubercles, or concretions of the lungs, an empyema, a nervous atrophy, or a cachexy.

DR. ARBUTHNOT observes, that in his time consumptions made up above one-tenth part of the bills of mortality in and about London. There is reason to believe they have rather increased since; and we know from experience, that they are not less fatal in some other towns of England than in London.

YOUNG persons, betwixt the age of fifteen and thirty, of a slender make, long neck, high shoulders, and flat breasts, are most liable to this disease.

CONSUMPTIONS prevail more in England than in any other part of the world, owing perhaps to the great use of animal food and malt-liquors, the general application to sedentary employments, and the great quantity of pit-coal which is there burnt; to which we may add the perpetual changes in the atmosphere, or variableness of the weather.

CAUSES. – It has already been observed, that an inflammation of the breast often ends in an posthume: Consequently whatever disposes people to this disease, must likewise be considered as a cause of consumptions.

OTHER diseases, by vitiating the habit, may likewise occasion consumptions; as the scurvy, the scrophula, or king’s evil, the venereal disease, the asthma, small-pox, measles, &c.

AS this disease is seldom cured, we shall endeavour the more particularly to point out its causes, in order that people may be enabled to avoid it. These are:

–CONFINED or unwholesome air. When this fluid is impregnated with the fumes of metals or minerals, it proves extremely hurtful to the lungs, and often corrodes the tender vessels of that necessary organ.

–VIOLENT passions, exertions or affections of the mind; as grief, disappointment, anxiety, or close application to the study of abstruse arts; or sciences.

–GREAT evacuations; as sweating, diarrhoeas, diabetes, excessive venery, the fluor albus, an over discharge of the menstrual flux, giving suck too long, &c.

–THE sudden stoppage of customary evacuations; as the bleeding piles, sweating of the feet, bleeding at the nose, the menses, issues, ulcers, or eruptions of any kind.

–INJURIES done to the lungs, calculi, &c. I lately saw an instance of a confirmed phthisis occasioned by a small bone sticking in the bronchae. It was afterwards vomited along with a considerable quantity of purulent matter, and the patient, by a proper regimen, and the use of the Peruvian bark, recovered.

–MAKING a sudden transition from a hot to a very cold climate, change of apparel, or whatever greatly lessens the perspiration.

–FREQUENT and excessive debaucheries. Late watching, and drinking strong liquors, which generally go together, can hardly fail to destroy the lungs. Hence the bon companion generally falls a sacrifice to this disease.

–INFECTION. Consumptions are likewise caught by sleeping with the diseased, for which reason this should be carefully avoided. It cannot be of great benefit to the sick, and must hurt those in health.

–OCCUPATIONS in life. Those artificers who sit much, and are constantly leaning forward, or pressing upon the stomach and breast, as cutlers, tailors, seamstresses, &c. often die of consumptions. They likewise prove fatal to singers, and all who have occasion to make frequent and violent exertions of the lungs.

–COLD. More consumptive patients date the beginning of their disorders from wet feet, damp beds, night air, wet clothes, or catching cold after the body had been heated, than from all other causes.

SHARP, saline, and aromatic aliments, which heat and inflame the blood, are likewise frequently the cause of consumptions.

WE shall only add, that this disease is often owing to an hereditary taint, or a scrophulous habit; in which case it is generally incurable.

SYMPTOMS. – This disease generally begins with a dry cough, which often continues for some months. If a disposition to vomit after eating be excited by it, there is still greater reason to fear an approaching consumption. The patient complains of a more than usual degree of heat, a pain and oppression of the breast, especially after motion; his spittle is of a saltish taste, and sometimes mixed with blood. He is apt to be sad; his appetite is bad, and his thirst great. There is generally a quick, soft, small pulse; though sometimes the pulse is pretty full, and rather hard. These are the common symptoms of a beginning consumption.

AFTERWARDS the patient begins to spit a greenish, white, or bloody matter. His body is extenuated by the hectic fever, and colliquate sweats, which mutually succeed one another, viz. the one towards night, and the other in the morning. A looseness and an excessive discharge of urine, are often troublesome symptoms at this time, and greatly weaken the patient. There is a burning heat in the palms of the hands, and the face generally flushes after eating; the fingers become remarkably small, the nails are bent inwards, and the hairs fall off.

AT last the swelling of the feet and legs, the total loss of strength, the sinking of the eyes, the difficulty of swallowing, and the coldness of the extremities, shew the immediate approach of death, which however the patient seldom believes to be so near. Such is the usual progress of this fatal disease, which, if not early checked, commonly sets all medicine at defiance.

REGIMEN. – On the first appearance of a consumption, if the patient lives in a large town, or any place where the air is confined, he ought immediately to quit it, and to make choice of a situation in the country, where the air is pure and free. Here he must not remain inactive, but take every day as much exercise as he can bear.

THE best method of taking exercise is to ride on horseback, as this gives the body a great deal of motion without much fatigue. Such as cannot bear this kind of exercise, must make use of a carriage. A long journey, as it amuses the mind by a continual change of objects, is greatly preferable to riding the same ground over and over. Care however must be taken to avoid catching cold from wet clothes, damp beds, or the like. The patient ought always to finish his ride in the morning, or at least before dinner; otherwise it will oftener do harm than good.

IT is a pity those who attend the sick seldom recommend riding in this disease, till the patient is either unable to bear it, or the malady has become incurable. Patients are likewise apt to trifle with every thing that is in their own power. They cannot see how one of the common actions of life should prove a remedy in an obstinate disease, and therefore they reject it, while they greedily hunt after relief from medicine, merely because they do not understand it.

THOSE who have strength and courage to undertake a pretty long voyage, may expect great advantage from it. This, to my knowledge, has frequently cured a consumption after the patient was, to all appearance, in the last stage of that disease, and where medicine had proved ineffectual. Hence it is reasonable to conclude, that if a voyage were undertaken in due time, it would seldom fail to perform a cure. Two things chiefly operate to prevent the benefits which would arise from sailing. The one is, that physicians seldom order it till the disease is too far advanced; and the other is, that they seldom order a voyage of a sufficient length. A patient may receive no benefit by crossing the Channel, who, should he cross the Atlantic, might be completely cured. Indeed we have reason to believe, that a voyage of this kind, if taken in due time, would seldom fail to cure a consumption.

SUCH as try this method of cure ought to carry as much fresh provisions along with them as will serve for the whole time they are at sea. As milk is not easily obtained in this situation, they ought to live upon fruits, and the broth of chickens, or rather young animals which can be kept alive on board. It is scarce necessary to add, that such voyages should be undertaken, if possible, in the mildest season, and that they ought to be towards a warmer climate. Though I do not remember to have seen one instance of a confirmed consumption of the lungs cured by medicine, yet I have known a West-India voyage work wonders in that dreadful disorder.

THOSE who have not courage for a long voyage may travel into a more southern climate, as the south of France, Spain or Portugal; and if they find the air of these countries agree with them, they should continue there, least till their health be confirmed.

NEXT to proper air and exercise, we would recommend a due attention to diet. The patient should eat nothing that is either heating or hard of digestion, and his drink must be of a soft and cooling nature. All the diet ought to be calculated to lessen the acrimony of the humours, and to nourish and support the patient. For this purpose he must keep chiefly to the use of vegetables and milk. Milk alone is of more value in this disease than the whole materia medica.

ASSES milk is commonly reckoned preferable to any other; but it cannot always be obtained; besides, it is generally taken in a very small quantity; whereas, to produce any effects, it ought to make a considerable part of the patient’s diet. It is hardly to be expected, that a gill or two of asses milk, drank in the space of twenty-four hours, should be able to produce any considerable change in the humours of an adult; and when people do not perceive its effects soon, they lose hope, and so leave it off. Hence it happens that this medicine, however valuable, very seldom performs a cure. The reason is obvious; it is commonly used too late, is taken in too small quantities, and is not duly persisted in.

I HAVE known very extraordinary effects from asses milk in obstinate coughs, which threatened a consumption of the lungs; and do verily believe, if used at this period, that it would seldom fail; but if it be delayed till an ulcer is formed, which is generally the case, how can it be expected to succeed?

ASSES milk ought to be drank, if possible, in its natural warmth, and, by a grown person, in the quantity of half an English pint at a time. Instead of taking this quantity night and morning only, the patient ought to take it four times, or at least thrice a day, and to eat a little light bread along with it, so as to make it a kind of meal.

IF the milk should happen to purge, it may be mixed with old conserve of roses. When that cannot be obtained, the powder of crabs claws may be used in its stead. Asses milk is usually ordered to be drank warm in bed; but as it generally throws the patient into a sweat when taken in this way, it would perhaps be better to give it after he rises.

SOME extraordinary cures in consumptive cases have been performed by women’s milk. Could this be obtained in sufficient quantity, we would recommend it in preference to any other. It is better if the patient can suck it from the breast, than to drink it afterwards. I knew a man who was reduced to such a degree of weakness in a consumption, as not to be able to turn himself in bed. His wife was at that time giving suck, and the child happening to die, he sucked her breasts, not with a view to reap any advantage from the milk, but to make her easy. Finding himself however greatly benefited by it, he continued to suck her till he became perfectly well, and is at present a strong and healthy man.

SOME prefer butter-milk to any other, and it is indeed a very valuable medicine, if the stomach be able to bear it. It does not agree with every person at first; and is therefore often laid aside without a sufficient trial. It should at first be taken sparingly, and the quantity gradually increased, until it comes to be almost the sole food. I never knew it succeed unless where the patient almost lived upon it.

COWS milk is most readily obtained of any, and though it be not so easily digested as that of asses or mares, it may be rendered lighter by adding to it an equal quantity of barley-water, or allowing it to stand for some hours, and afterwards taking off the cream. If it should, notwithstanding, prove heavy on the stomach, a small quantity of brandy or rum, with a little sugar, may be added, which will render it both more light and nourishing.

IT is not to be wondered, that milk should, for some time, disagree with a stomach that has not been accustomed to digest any thing but flesh and strong liquors, which is the case with many of those who fall into consumptions. We do not however advise those who have been accustomed to animal food and strong liquors, to leave them off all at once. This might be dangerous. It will be necessary for such to eat a little once a-day of the flesh of some young animal, or rather to use the broth made of chickens, veal, lamb, or such like. They ought likewise to drink a little wine made into negus, or diluted with twice or thrice its quantity of water, and to make it gradually weaker till they can leave it off altogether.

THESE must be used only as preparative to a diet consisting chiefly of milk and vegetables, which the sooner the patient can be brought to bear, the better. Rice and milk, or barley and milk boiled, with a little sugar, is very proper food. Ripe fruits roasted, baked, or boiled, are likewise proper, as goose or currant berry tarts, apples roasted, or boiled in milk, &c. The jellies, conserves, and preserves, &c. of ripe subacid fruits, ought to be eat plentifully, as the jelly of currants, conserve of roses, preserved plums, cherries, &c.

WHOLESOME air, proper exercise, and a diet consisting chiefly of these and other vegetables, with milk, is the only course that can be depended upon in a beginning consumption. If the patient has strength and sufficient resolution to persist in this course, he will seldom be disappointed of a cure.

IN a populous town in England, Sheffield, where consumptions are very common, I have frequently seen consumptive patients, who had been sent to the country with orders to ride, and live upon milk and vegetables, return in a few months quite plump, and free from any complaint. This indeed was not always the case, especially when the disease was hereditary, or far advanced; but it was the only method in which success was to be expected: where it failed, I never knew medicine succeed.

IF the patient’s strength and spirits flag, he must be supported by strong broths, jellies, and such like. Some recommend shell-fish in this disorder, and with some reason, as they are nourishing and restorative. I have often known persons of a consumptive habit, where the symptoms were not violent, reap great benefit from the use of oysters. They generally eat them raw, and drank the juice along with them. All the food and drink ought however to be taken in small quantities, lest an overcharge of fresh chyle should oppress the lungs, and too much accelerate the circulation of the blood.

THE patient’s mind ought to be kept as easy and cheerful as possible. Consumptions are often occasioned, and always aggravated, by a melancholy cast of mind; for which reason, music, cheerful company, and every thing that inspires mirth, are highly beneficial. The patient ought seldom to be left alone, as brooding over his calamities is sure to render them worse.

MEDICINE. – Though the cure of this disease depends chiefly upon regimen and the patient’s own endeavours, yet we shall mention a few things which may be of service in relieving some of the more violent symptoms.

IN the first stage of a consumption, the cough may sometimes be appeased by bleeding; and the expectoration may be promoted by the following medicines. Take fresh squills, gum-ammoniac, and powdered cardamom seeds of each a quarter of an ounce; beat them together in a mortar, and if the mass prove too hard for pills, a little of any kind of syrup may be added to it. This may be formed into pills of a moderate size, and four or five of them taken twice or thrice a-day, according as the patient’s stomach will bear them.

THE lac ammoniacum, or milk of gum ammoniac, as it is called, is likewise a proper medicine in this stage of the disease. It may be used as directed in the pleurisy.

A MIXTURE made of equal parts of lemon-juice, fine honey, and syrup of poppies, may likewise be used. Four ounces of each of these may be simmered together in a sauce-pan, over a gentle fire, and a table-spoonful of it taken at any time when the cough is troublesome.

IT is common in this stage of the disease to load the patient’s stomach with oily and balsamic medicines. These, instead of removing the cause of the disease, tend rather to increase it, by heating the blood, while they pall the appetite, relax the solids, and prove every way hurtful to the patient. Whatever is used for removing the cough, besides riding and other proper regimen, ought to be medicines of a sharp and cleansing nature; as oxymel, syrup of lemon, &c.

ACIDS seem to have peculiar good effects in this disease; they both tend to quench the patient’s thirst and to cool the blood. The vegetable acids, as apples, oranges, lemons, &c. appear to be the most proper. I have known patients suck the juice of several lemons every day with manifest advantage, and would, for this reason, recommend acid vegetables to be taken in as great quantity as the stomack will bear them.

FOR the patient’s drink, we would recommend infusions of the bitter plants, as ground-ivy, the lesser centaury, camomile flowers, or water-trefoil. These infusions may be drank at pleasure. They strengthen the stomach, promote digestion, rectify the blood, and at the same time answer all the purposes of dilution, and quench thirst much better than things that are luscious or sweet. But if the patient spits blood, he ought to use, for his ordinary drink, infusions or decoctions of the vulnerary roots, plants, &c. See Appendix, Vulnerary decoction.

THERE are many other mucilaginous plants and seeds, of a healing and agglutinating nature, from which decoctions or infusions may be prepared with the same intention; as the orches, the quince-seed, colts-foot, linseed, sarsaparilla, &c. It is not necessary to mention the different ways in which these may be prepared. Simple infusion or boiling is all that is necessary, and the dose may be at discretion.

THE conserve of roses is here peculiarly proper. It may either be put into the decoction above prescribed, or eat by itself. No benefit is to be expected from trifling doses of this medicine. I never knew it of any service, unless where three or four ounces at least were used daily for a considerable time. In this way I have seen it produce very happy effects, and would recommend it wherever there is a discharge of blood from the lungs,

WHEN the spitting up of gross matter, oppression of the breast, and the hectic symptoms shew that an imposthume is formed in the lungs, we would recommend the Peruvian bark, that being the only drug which has any chance to counteract the general tendency which the humours then have to putrefaction.

AN ounce of the bark in powder may be divided into eighteen or twenty doses, of which one may be taken every three hours through the day in a little syrup, or a cup of horehound tea.

IF the bark should happen to purge, it may be made into an electuary, with the conserve of roses, thus: Take old conserve of roses a quarter of a pound, Peruvian bark in powder an ounce, syrup of orange or lemon, as much as will make it of the consistence of honey. This quantity will serve the patient four or five days, and may be repeated as there is occasion.

SUCH as cannot take the bark in substance, may infuse it in cold water. This seems to be the best menstruum for extracting the virtues of that drug. Half an ounce of bark in powder may be infused for twenty-four hours in half an English pint of water. Afterwards let it be passed through a fine strainer, and an ordinary tea-cupful of it taken three or four limes a-day.

WE would not recommend the bark while there are any symptoms of an inflammation of the breast; but when it is certainly known that matter is collected there, it is one of the best medicines which can be used. Few patients indeed have resolution enough to give the bark a fair trial at this period of the disease, otherwise we have reason to believe, that some benefit might be reaped from it.

WHEN it is evident that there is an imposthume in the breast, and the matter can neither be spit up nor carried off by absorption, the patient must endeavour to make it break inwardly, by drawing in the steams of warm water or vinegar with his breath, coughing, laughing, or bawling aloud, &c. When it happens to burst within the lungs, the matter may be discharged by the mouth. Sometimes indeed the bursting of the vomica occasions immediate death, by suffocating the patient. When the quantity of matter is great, and the patient’s strength exhausted, this is apt to happen. At any rate the patient is ready to fall into a swoon, and should have volatile salts or spirits held to his nose.

IF the matter discharged be thick, and the cough and breathing become easier, there may be some hopes of a cure. The diet at this time ought to be light, but restorative, as chicken-broths, sago-gruel, rice-milk, &c. The drink butter-milk, or whey sweetened with honey. This is likewise a proper time for using the Peruvian bark, which may be taken as directed above.

IF the vomica or imposthume should discharge itself into the cavity of the breast, betwixt the pleura and the lungs, there is no way of getting the matter out but by an incision, as has already been observed. As this operation must always be performed by a surgeon, it is not necessary here to describe it. We shall only add, that it is not so dreadful as people are apt to imagine, and that it is the only chance the patient, in this case, has for his life.

A NERVOUS CONSUMPTION is a wasting or decay of the whole body, without any considerable degree of fever, cough, or difficulty of breathing. It is attended with indigestion, weakness, and want of appetite, &c.

THOSE who are of a fretful temper, who indulge in spirituous liquors, or who breathe an unwholesome air, are most liable to this disease.

WE would chiefly recommend, for the cure of a nervous consumption, a light and nourishing diet, plenty of exercise in a free open air, and the use of such bitters as brace and strengthen the stomach; as the Peruvian bark, gentian root, camomile, horehound, &c. These may be infused in water or wine, and a glass of it drank frequently.

IT will greatly assist the digestion, and promote the cure of this disease, to take twice a-day twenty or thirty drops of the elixir of vitriol in a glass of wine or water. The chalybeate wine is likewise an excellent medicine in this case. It strengthens the solids, and powerfully assists Nature in the preparation of good blood. See Appendix, Chalybeate wine.

AGREEABLE amusements, cheerful company, and riding about, are, however, preferable to all medicines in this disease. For which reason, when the patient can afford it, we would recommend a long journey of pleasure, as the most likely means to restore his health,

WHAT is called a symptomatic consumption cannot be cured without first removing the disease by which it is occasioned. Thus, when a consumption proceeds from the scrophula or king’s-evil, from the scurvy, the asthma, the venereal disease, &c. a due attention must be paid to the malady from whence it arises, and the regimen and medicine directed accordingly.

WHEN excessive evacuations of any kind occasion a consumption, they must not only be restrained, but the patient’s strength must be restored by gentle exercise, nourishing diet, and generous cordials. Young and delicate mothers often fall into consumptions, by giving suck too long. As soon as they perceive their strength and appetite begin to fail, they ought immediately to wean the child, or provide another nurse, otherwise they cannot expect a cure.

BEFORE we quit this subject, we would earnestly recommend it to all, as they wish to avoid consumptions, to take as much exercise without doors as they can, to avoid unwholesome air, and to study sobriety. Consumptions owe their present increase not a little to the fashion of sitting up late, eating hot suppers, and spending every evening over a bowl of hot punch or other strong liquors. These liquors, when too freely used, not only hurt the digestion, and spoil the appetite, but heat and inflame the blood, and set the whole constitution on fire.

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