Gout | 18th Century Medicine


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org 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.


      THERE is no disease which shews the imperfection of medicine, or sets the advantages of temperance and exercise in a stronger light, than the gout. Excess and idleness are the true sources from whence it originally sprung, and all who would avoid it must be active and temperate.

      THOUGH idleness and intemperance are the principal causes of the gout, yet many other things may contribute to bring on the disorder in those who are not, and to induce a paroxysm in those who are subject to it; as intense study; too free an use of acid liquors; night-watching; grief or uneasiness of mind; an obstruction or defect of any of the customary discharges, as the menses, sweating of the feet, perspiration, &c.

      SYMPTOMS. – A fit of the gout is generally preceded by indigestion, drowsiness, belching of wind, a slight head-ach, sickness, and sometimes vomiting. The patient complains of weariness and dejection of spirits, and has often a pain in the limbs, with a sensation as if wind or cold water were passing down the thigh. The appetite is often remarkably keen a day or two before the fit, and there is a slight pain in passing urine and sometimes an involuntary shedding of tears. Sometimes these symptoms are much more violent, especially upon the near approach of the fit; and some observe, that as is the fever which ushers in the gout, so will the fit be; if the fever be short and sharp, the fit will be so likewise; if it be feeble, long, and lingering, the fit will be such also. But this observation can only hold with respect to very regular fits of the gout.

      THE regular gout generally makes its attack in the spring, or beginning of winter, in the following manner: About two or three in the morning, the patient is seized with a pain in his great toe, sometimes in the heel, and at other times in the ancle or calf of the Ieg. This pain is accompanied with a sensation as if cold water were poured upon the part, which is succeeded by a shivering, with some degree of fever. Afterwards the pain increases, and fixing among the small bones of the foot, the patient feels all the different kinds of torture, as if the part were stretched, burnt, squeezed., gnawed, or torn in pieces, &c. The part at length becomes so exquisitely sensible, that the patient cannot bear to have it touched, or even suffer any person to walk across the room.

      THE patient is generally in exquisite torture for twenty-four hours, from the time of the coming on of the fit: He then becomes easier, the part begins to swell, appears red, and is covered with a little moisture. Towards morning he drops asleep, and generally falls into a gentle breathing sweat. This terminates the first paroxysm, a number of which constitutes a fit of the gout; which is longer or shorter according to the patient’s age, strength, the season of the year, and the disposition of the body to this disease.

      THE patient is always worse towards night, and easier in the morning, The paroxysms however generally grow milder every day, till at length the disease is carried off by perspiration, urine, and the other evacuations. In some patients this happens in a few days; in others, it requires weeks, and, in some, months, to finish the fit.

      THOSE whom age and frequent fits of the a gout have greatly debilitated, seldom get free of it before the approach of summer, and sometimes not till it be pretty far advanced.

      REGIMEN. – As there are no medicines yet known that will cure the gout, we shall confine our observations chiefly to regimen, both in and out of the fit.

      IN the fit, if the patient be young and strong, his diet ought to be thin and cooling, and his drink of a diluting nature; but where the constitution is weak, and the patient has been accustomed to live high, this is not a proper time to retrench. In this case he must keep nearly to his usual diet, and should take frequently a cup of strong negus, or a glass of generous wine. Wine-whey is a very proper drink in this case, as it promotes the pespiration without greatly heating the patient. It will answer this purpose better if a tea-spoonful of sal volatile oleosum, or spirits of hartshorn, be put into a cup of it twice a-day.

      IT will likewise be proper to give at bed-time a tea-spoonful of the volatlle tincture of guaiacum in a large draught of warm wine-whey. This will greatly promote perspiration through the night.

      AS the most safe and efficacious method of discharging the gouty matter is by perspiration, this ought to be kept up by all means, especially in the affected part. For this purpose the leg and foot should be wrapt in soft fiannel, fur, or wool. The last is most readily obtained, and seems to answer the purpose better than any thing else. The people of Lancashire look upon wool as a kind of specific in the gout. They wrapt a great quantity of it about the leg and foot affected, and cover it with a a skin of soft dressed leather. This they suffer to continue for eight or ten days, and sometimes for a fortnight or three weeks, or longer if the pain does not cease. I never knew any external application answer so well in the gout. I have often seen it applied when the swelling and inflammation were very great, with violent pain, and have found all these symptoms relieved by it in a few days. The wool which they use is generally greased, and carded or combed. They chuse the softest which can be had, and seldom or never remove it till the fit be entirely gone off.

      THE patient ought likewise to be kept quiet and easy during the fit. Every thing that affects the mind disturbs the paroxysm, and tends to throw the gout upon the nobler parts. All external applications that repel the matter are to be avoided as death. They do not cure the disease, but remove it from a safer to a more dangerous part of the body, where it often proves fatal. A fit of the gout is to be considered as Nature’s method of removing something that might prove destructive to the body, and all that we can do, with safety, is to promote her intentions, and to assist her in expelling the enemy in her own way. Evacuations by bleeding, stool, &c. are Iikewise to be used with caution; they do not remove the cause of the disease, and sometimes by weakening the patient prolong the fit: But, where the constitution is able to bear it, it will be of use to keep the body gently open by diet, or very mild laxative medicines.

      MANY things will indeed shorten a fit of the gout, and some will drive it off altogether; but nothing has yet been found which will do this with safety to the patient. In pain we eagerly grasp at any thing that promises immediate ease and even hazard life itself for a temporary relief. This is the true reason why so many infallible remedies have been proposed for the gout, and why such numbers have lost their lives by the use of them. It would be as prudent to stop the small-pox from rising, and to drive them into the blood, as to repel the gouty matter after it has been thrown upon the extremities. The latter is as much an effort of Nature to free herself from an offending cause as the former, and ought equally to be promoted.

      WHEN the pain however is very great, and the patient is restless, thirty or forty drops of laudanum, more or less, according to the violence of the symptoms, may be taken at bed-time. This will ease the pain, procure rest, promote perspiration, and forward the crisis of the disease.

      AFTER the fit is over, the patient ought to take a gentle dose or two of the bitter tincture of rhubarb, or some other warm stomachic purge. He should also drink a weak infusion of stomachic bitters in small wine or ale, as the Peruvian bark, with cinnamon, Virginian snake-root, and orange-peel. The diet at this time should be light, but nourishing, and gentle exercise ought to be taken on horseback, or in a carriage.

      OUT of the fit, it is in the patient’s power to do many things towards preventing a return of the disorder, or rendering the fit, if it should return, less severe. This however is not to be attempted by medicine. I have frequently known the gout kept off for several years by the Peruvian bark and other astringent medicines: but in all the cases where I had occasion to see this tried, the persons died suddenly, and, to all appearance, for want of a regular fit of the gout. One would be apt, from hence, to conclude, that a fit of the gout, to some constitutions, in the decline of life, is rather salutary than hurtful.

      THOUGH it may be dangerous to stop a fit of the gout by medicine, yet if the constitution can be so changed by diet and exercise, as to lessen or totally prevent its return, there certainly can be no danger in following such a course. It is well known that the whole habit may be so altered by a proper regimen as quite to eradicate this disease; and those only who have sufficient resolution to persist in such a course have reason to expect a cure.

      THE course which we would recommend for preventing the gout is as follows: In the first place, universal temperance. In the next place sufficient exercise. Some make secret of curing the gout by muscuIar exercise. This secret, however, is as old as Celsus, who strongly recommends that mode of cure; and whoever will submit to it, in the fullest extent, may expect to reap solid and permanent advantages.

      BY this we do not mean sauntering about in an indolent manner, but labour, sweat, and toil. These only can render the humours wholesome, and keep them so. Going early to bed, and rising betimes, are also of great importance. It is likewise proper to avoid night studies, and all intense thought. The supper should be light, and taken early. All strong liquors, especially generous wines and sour punch, are to be avoided.

      WE would likewise recommend some doses of magnesia alba and rhubarb to be taken every spring and autumn; and afterwards a course of stomachic bitters, as tansy or water-trefoil tea, an infusion of gentian and camomile flowers, or a decoction of burdock root, &c. Any of these, or an infusion of any wholesome bitter that is more agreeable to the patient, may be drank for two or three weeks in March and October twice a-day. An issue or perpetual blister has a great tendency to prevent the gout. If these were more generally used in the decline of life, they would not only often prevent the gout, but also other chronic maladies. Such as can afford to go to Bath, will find great benefit from bathing and drinking the water. It both promotes digestion and invigorates the habit.

      THOUGH there is little room for medicine during a regular fit of the gout, yet when it leaves the extremities, and falls on some of the internal parts, proper applications to recall and fix it, become absolutely necessary. When the gout affects the head, the pain of the joints ceases, and the swelling disappears, while either severe head-ach, drowsiness, trembling, giddiness, convulsions, or delirium come on. When it seizes the lungs, great oppression, with cough and difficulty of breathing, ensue. If it attacks the stomach, extreme sickness, vomiting, anxiety, pain in the epigastric region,and, total loss of strength, will succeed.

      WHEN the gout attacks the head or lungs, every method must be taken to fix it in the feet. They must be frequently bathed in warm water, and acrid cataplasms applied to the soles. Blistering-plasters ought likewise to be applied to the ankles or calves of the legs. Bleeding in the feet or ancles is also necessary, and warm stomachic purges. The patient ought to keep in bed for the most part, if there be any signs of inflammation, and should be very careful not to catch cold.

      IF it attacks the stomach with a sense of cold, the most warm cordials are necessary; as strong wine boiled up with cinnamon or other spices; cinnamon-water; peppermint-water; and even brandy or rum. The patient should keep his bed, and endeavour to promote a sweat by drinking warm liquors; and if he should be troubled with a nausea, or inclination to vomit, he may drink camomile-tea, or any thing that will make him vomit freely.

      WHEN the gout attacks the kidneys, and imitates gravel-pains, the patient ought to drink freely of a decoction of marsh-mallows, and to have the parts fomented with warm water. An emollient clyster ought likewise to be given, and afterwards an opiate. If the pain be very violent, twenty or thirty drops of laudanum may be taken in a cup of the decoction.

      PERSONS who have had the gout should be very attentive to any complaints that may happen to them about the time when they have reason to expect a return of the fit. The gout imitates many other disorders, and by being mistaken for them, and treated improperly, is often diverted from its regular course, to the great danger of the patient’s life.

      THOSE who never had the gout, but who, from their constitution or manner of living, have reason to expect it, ought likewise to be very circumspect with regard to its first approach. If the disease, by wrong conduct or improper medicine, be diverted from its proper course, the miserable patient has a chance to be ever after tormented with head-achs, coughs, pains of the stomach and intestines; and to fall, at last, a victim to its attack upon some of the more noble parts.


      THIS disease has often a resemblance to the gout. It generally attacks the joints with exquisite pain, and is sometimes attended with inflammation and swelling. It is most common in the spring, and towards the end of autumn. It is usually distinguished into acute and chronic; or the rheumatism with and without a fever.

      CAUSES. – The causes of a rheumatism are frequently the same as those of an inflammatory fever; viz. an obstructed perspiration, the immoderate use of strong liquors, and the like. Sudden changes of the weather, and all quick transitions from heat to cold, are very apt to occasion the rheumatism. The most extraordinary case of a rheumatism that I ever saw, where almost every joint of the body was distorted, was a man who used to work one part of the day by the fire, and the other part of it in the water. Very obstinate rheumatisms have been likewise brought on by persons not accustomed to it, allowing their feet to continue long wet. The same effects are often produced by wet cloths, damp beds, sitting or lying on the damp ground; travelling in the night, &c.

      THE rheumatism may likewise be occasioned by excessive evacuations, or the stoppage of customary discharges. It is often the effect of chronic diseases which vitiate the humours; as the scurvy, the lues venerea, obstinate autumnal agues, &c.

      THE rheumatism prevails in cold, damp, marshy countries. It is most common amongst the poorer sort of peasants, who are ill clothed, live in low damp houses, and eat coarse unwholesome food, which contains but little nourishment, and is not easily digested.

      SYMPTOMS. – The acute rheumatism commonly begins with weariness, shivering, a quick pulse, restlessness, thirst, and other symptoms of fever. Afterwards the patient complains of lying pains, which are increased by the least motion. These at length fix in the joints, which are often affected with swelling and inflammation. If blood be let in this disease, it has generally the same appearance as in the pleurisy.

      IN this kind of rheumatism the treatment of the patient is nearly the same as in an acute or inflammatory fever. If he be young and strong, bleeding is necessary, which may be repeated according to the exigencies of the case. The body ought likewise to be kept open by emollient clysters, or cool opening liquors; as decoctions of tamarinds, cream tartar whey, senna tea, and the like. The diet should be light, and in small quantity, consisting chiefly of roasted apples, goat-gruel, or weak chicken broth. After the feverish symptoms have abated, if the pain still continues, the patient must keep his bed, and take such things as promote perspiration; as wine-whey, with spiritus Mindereri, &c. He may likewise take for a few nights, at bed-time, in a cup of wine-whey, a drachm of the cream of tartar, and half drachm of gum guaiacum in powder.

      WARM bathing, after proper evacuations, has often an exceeding good effect. The patient may either be put into a bath of warm water, or have cloths wrung out of it applied to the parts affected. Great care must be taken that he do not catch cold after bathing.

      THE chronic rheumatism is seldom attended with any considerable degree of fever, and is generally confined to some particular part of the body, as the shoulders, the back, or the loins. There is seldom any inflammation or swelling in this case. Persons in the decline of life are most subject to the chronic rheumatism. In such patients it often proves extremely obstinate, and sometimes incurable.

      IN this kind of rheumatism the regimen should be nearly the same as in the acute. Cool and diluting diet, consisting chiefly of vegetable substances, as stewed prunes, coddled apples, currants or gooseberries boiled in milk, is most proper. Arbuthnot says, “If there be a specific in an aliment for the rheumatism, it is certainly whey” and adds, “That he knew a person subject to this disease, who could never be cured by any other method but a diet of whey and bread.” He likewise says, “That cream of tartar in water gruel, taken for several days, will ease rheumatiic pains considerably.” This I have often experienced, but found it always more efficacious when joined with gum guaiacum as already directed. In this case the patient may take the dose formerly mentioned twice a-day, and likewise a tea-spoonful of the volatile tincture of gum guaiacum, at bed-time, in wine-whey.

      THIS course may be continued for a week, or longer, if the case proves obstinate, and the patient’s strength will permit. It ought then to be omitted for a few days, and repeated again. At the same time leeches or a blistering-plaster may be applied to the part affected. What I have generally found answer better than either of these, in obstinate fixed rheumatic pains, is the warm plaster. See Appendix, Warm Plaster. I have likewise known a plaster of Burgundy pitch worn for some time on the part affected give great relief in rheumatic pains. My ingenious friend, Dr. Alexander of Edinburgh, says, he has frequently cured very obstinate rheumatic pains by rubbing the part affected with tincture of cantharides. When the common tincture did not succeed; he used it of a double or treble strength. Cupping upon the part affected is likewise often very beneficial, and is greatly preferable to the application of leeches.

      THOUGH this disease may not seem to yield to medicines for some time, yet they ought still to be persisted in.

      PERSONS who are subject to frequent returns of the rheumatism, will often find their account in using medicines, whether they be immediately affected with the disease or not. The chronic rheumatism is similar to the gout in this respect, that the most proper time for using medicines to extirpate it, is when the patient is most free from the disorder.

      TO those who can afford the expence, I would recommend the warm baths of Buxton or Matlock in Derbyshire. These have often, to my knowledge, cured very obstinate rheumatisms, and are always safe either in or out of the fit. When the rheumatism is complicated with scorbutic complaints, which is not seldom the case, the Harrowgate waters, and those of Moffat are proper. They should likewise be drank and used as a warm bath.

      THERE are several of our own domestic plants which may be used with advantage in the rheumatism. One of the best is the white mustard. A table-spoonful of the seed of this plant may be taken twice or thrice a-day, in a glass of water or small wine. The water-trefoil is likewise of great use in this complaint, it may be infused in wine or ale, or drank in form of tea. The ground-ivy, camomile, and several other bitters, are also benificial, and may be used in the same manner. No benefit however is to be expected from them, unless they be taken for a considerable time. Excellent medicines are often despised in this disease, because they do not perform an immediate cure; whereas nothing would be more certain than their effect, were they duly persisted in. Want of perseverance in the use of medicines is one reason why chronic diseases are so seldom cured.

      COLD bathing, especially in salt water, often cures the rheumatism. We would also recommend riding on horseback, and wearing flannel next the skin.

      ISSUES are very proper, especially in chronic cases. If the pain affects the shoulders, an issue may be made in the arm, but if it affects the loins, it should be put in the leg, or thigh.

      PERSONS afflicted with the scurvy are very subject to rheumatic complaints. The best medicines in this case are bitters and mild purgatives. These may either be taken separately or together, as the patient inclines. An ounce of Peruvian bark, and half an ounce of rhubarb in powder, may be infused in a bottle of wine; and one, two, or three wine glasses of it taken daily, as shall be found necessary for keeping the body gently open. In cases where the bark itself proves sufficiently purgative, the rhubarb may be omitted.

      SUCH as are subject to frequent attacks of the rheumatism ought to make choice of a dry, warm situation, to avoid night-air, wet cloths, and wet feet, as much as possible. Their clothing should be warm, and they should wear flannel next their skin, and make frequent use of the flesh-brush.

      Related posts