Sensory Disorders (Sight, Sound, Taste, Touch) | 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.


      WE do not mean to treat of the nature of our sensations, or to give a minute description of the various organs by which they are performed, but to point out some of the diseases to which these organs are most liable, and to shew how they may be prevented or remedied.

      OF THE EYE

      No organ of the body is subjected to more diseases than the eye; nor is there any one of which the diseases are more difficult to cure. Though more ignorant persons pretend to cure these than any other class of diseases; yet a very superficial acquaintance with the stricture of the eye, and the nature of vision, will be sufficient to convince any one of the danger of trusting to them. These diseases often exceed the skill of the most learned physician; hence we may easily infer the danger of trusting them to ignorant quacks, who, without all peradventure, put out more eyes than they cure. But, though the diseases of the eye can seldom be cured, they might often, by due care, be prevented; and even where the sight is totally lost, many things might be done, which are generally neglected, to render the unhappy person both more useful to himself and to society. It is pity those who have the misfortune to be born blind, or who lose their sight when young, should be suffered to remain in ignorance, or to beg. This is both cruelty and want of oeconomy. There are many employments of which blind persons are very capable, as knitting, carding, turning a wheel, teaching languages, &c. Nor are instances wanting of persons who have arrived at the highest pitch of learning, without having the least idea of light. Witness the late famous Nicholas Sanderson of Cambridge, and my worthy friend Dr. Thomas Blacklock of Edinburgh. The former was one of the first mathematicians of his age, and the latter, besides being a good poet and philosopher, is master of all the learned languages, and a very considerable adept in the IiberaI arts.

      THE eyes are hurt by viewing bright or luminous objects; keeping the head too long in a hanging posture; violent head-achs; excessive venery; the long use of bitters; the effluvia from acrid or volatile, substances; various diseases; as the small-pox, measles, &c. but, above all, from night-watching, and candle-light studies. Long fasting is likewise hurtful to the eyes, and frequent heats and colds are no less pernicious. The eyes are often hurt by the stoppage of customary evacuations; as morning sweats; sweating of the feet; the menses in women; and the bleeding piles in men. All kinds of excess are likewise hurtful to the sight, particularly the immoderate use of ardent spirits and other strong liquors.

      IN all diseases of the eyes, especially those attended with inflammation, the cool regimen ought to be observed. The patient must abstain from all spirituous liquors. The smoke of tobacco, smoky rooms, the vapours of onions and garlic, and all vivid lights and glaring colours, are carefully to be avoided. The drink may be water, whey, or small beer; and the aliment must be light and of easy digestion.

      FOR preventing disorders of the eyes, issues and setons are of prime use. Every person, whose eyes are tender, ought to have one or more of these in some part of the body. It will likewise be of use to keep the body gently open, and either to bleed or purge every spring and fall. All excess and night studies are to be avoided. Such as do not chuse a seton or an issue, will find benefit from wearing a small Burgundy-pitch plaster between their shoulders.

      A gutta serena, or amaurosis, is an abolition of the sight without any apparent cause or fault in the eyes. When it is owing to a decay or wasting of the optic nerve, it does not admit of a cure; but when it proceeds from a compression of the nerves by redundant humours, these may in some measure be drained off, and the patient relieved. For this purpose, the body must be kept open with the laxative mercurial pills. If the patient be young and of a sanguine habit, he may be bled, Cupping, with scarifications on the back part of the head, will likewise be of use. A running at the nose may be promoted by volatile salts, stimulating powders, &c. But the most likely means for relieving the patient are issues or blisters kept open for a long time on the back part of the head, behind the ears, or on the neck. I have known these restore sight, even after it had been for a considerable time lost.

      SHOULD these fail, recourse must be had to a mercurial salivation; or what will perhaps answer the purpose better, twelve grains of the corrosive sublimate of mercury may be dissolved in an English pint and a half of brandy, and a table-spoonful of it taken twice a-day, drinking half a pint of the decoction of sarsaparilla after it.

      A cataract is an obstruction of the pupil, by the interposition of some opaque substance which either diminishes or totally extinguishes the sight. It is generally an opacity of the crystalline humour. In a recent or beginning cataract, the same medicines are to be used as in the gutta serena; and they will sometimes succeed. But when this does not happen, and the cataract becomes firm, it mull be couched, or rather extracted. I have resolved a recent cataract by giving the patient frequent purges with calomel, keeping a poultice of fresh hemlock constantly upon the eye, and a perpetual blister on the neck.

      THE myopia, or short-sightedness and the presbyopia, or seeing only at too great a distance, are disorders which depend on the original structure or figure of the eye, therefore admit of no cure. The inconveniencies arising from them may however be, in some measure, remedied by the help of proper glasses. The former requires the aid of a concave, and the latter of a convex glass.

      A strabismus or squinting, depends upon an irregular contraction of, the muscles of the eye from a spasm, palsy, epilepsy, or an ill habit. Children often contract this disorder by having their eyes unequally exposed to the light. They may likewise acquire it by imitation from a squinting nurse or play-fellow, &c. As this disorder can hardly be cured, parents ought to be careful to prevent it. Almost the only thing which can be done for it is to contrive a mask for the child to wear, which will only permit him to see in a straight direction.

      Spots or Specks on the eyes are generally the effect of inflammation, and often appear after the small-pox, the measles, or violent ophthalmias. They are very difficult to cure, and often occasion total blindness. If the specks are soft and thin, they may sometimes be taken off by gentle caustics and discutients; as vitriol, the juice of celandine, &c. When these do not succeed, a surgical operation may be tried: The success of this however is always very doubtful.

      THE blood-shot eye may be occasioned by a stroke, a fall, retching, vomiting, violent coughing, &c. I have frequently known it happen to children in the hooping-cough. It appears at first like a bit of scarlet, and is afterwards of a livid or blackish colour. This disorder generally goes off without medicine. Should it prove obstinate, the patient may be bled, and have his eyes fomented with a decoction of comphry roots and elder flowers. A soft poultice may be applied to the eyes; and the body should be kept open by gentle purgatives.

      THE watery, or weeping eye is occasioned by a relaxation or weakness of the glandular parts of that organ. These may be braced and strengthened by bathing the eye with brandy and water, Hungary-water, rose-water with white vitriol dissolved in it, &c. Medicines which make a revulsion are likewise proper; as mild purgatives, perpetual blisters on the neck, bathing the feet frequently in lukewarm water, &c.

      WHEN this disease proceeds from an obstruction of the lachrymal duct, or natural passage of the tears, it is called a fistula lacrymalis, and can only be cured by a surgical operation..

      OF THE EAR

      THE functions of the ear may be injured by wounds, ulcers, or any thing that hurts its fabric. The hearing may likewise be hurt by excessive noise; violent colds in the head; fevers, hard wax, or other substances sticking in the cavity of the ear; too great a degree of moisture or dryness of the ear.

      DEAFNESS is very often the effect of old age, and is incident to most people in the decline of life. Sometimes it is owing to an original fault in the structure or formation of the ear itself. When this is the case, it admits of no cure; and the unhappy person not only continues deaf, but generally likewise dumb, for life. Though those who have the misfortune to be born deaf are generally suffered to continue dumb, and consequently are in a great measure lost to society, yet nothing is more certain than that such persons may be taught, not only to read and write, but also to speak, and to understand what others say to them. Teaching the dumb to speak will appear paradoxical to those who do not consider that the formation of sounds is merely mechanical, and may be taught without the assistance of the ear. This is not only capable of demonstration, but is actually reduced to practice by the ingenious Mr. Thomas Braidwood of Edinburgh. This gentleman has, by the mere force of genius and application, brought the teaching of dumb persons to such a degree of perfection, that his scholars are generally more forward in their education than those of the same age who enjoy all their faculties. They not only read and write with the utmost readiness, but likewise speak, and are capable of holding conversation with any person in the light. What a pity any of the human species should remain in a state of idiotism, who are capable of being rendered as useful and intelligent as others! We mention this not only from humanity to those who have the misfortune to be born deaf, but also in justice to Mr. Braidwood, whose success has far exceeded all former attempts this way; and indeed it exceeds imagination itself so far, that no person who has not seen and examined his pupils, can believe what they are capable of. – As this gentleman, however willing, is only able to teach a few, and as the far greater part of those who are born deaf cannot afford to attend him, it would be an act of great humanity, as well as of public utility, to erect an academy for their behoof.

      WHEN deafness is the effect of wounds or ulcers of the ears, or of old age, it is not easily removed. when it proceeds from cold of the head, the patient must be careful to keep his head warm, especially in the night; he should likewise take some gentle purges, and keep his feet warm, and bathe them frequently in luke-warm water at bed-time. When deafness is the effect of a fever, it generally goes off after the patient recovers. If it proceeds from dry wax sticking in the ears, it may be softened by dropping oil into them; afterwards they must be syringed with warm milk and water.

      IF deafness proceeds from dryness of the ears, which may be known by looking into them, half an ounce of the oil of sweet almonds, and the same quantity of liquid apodeldoch, or tincture of asafoetida, may be mixed together, and a few drops of it put into the ear every night at bed-time, stopping them afterwards with a little wool or cotton. Some, instead of oil, put a small slice of the fat of bacon into each ear, which is said to answer the purpose very well. When the ears abound with moisture, it may be drained off by an issue or seton, which should be made as near the affected parts as possible.

      SOME, for the cure of deafness, recommend the gall of an eel mixed with spirit of wine, to be dropped into the ear; others, equal parts of Hungary water and spirit of lavender. Etmuller extols amber and musk; and Brookes says, he has often known hardness of hearing cured by putting a grain or two of musk into the ear with cotton-wool. But these and other applications must be varied according to the cause of the disorder. A gentleman, on whose veracity I can depend, told me, that after using many things to no purpose for an obstinate deafness, he he was at last advised to put a few drops of his own urine warm into his ears every night and morning, from which he received great benefit. It is probable that a solution of sal ammoniac, in water, would produce the same effect.

      THOUGH such applications may sometimes be of service, yet they much oftener fail, and frequently they do hurt. Neither the eyes nor ears ought to be tampered with; they are tender organs, and require a very delicate touch. For this reason, what we would chiefly recommend in deafness, is, to keep the head warm. From whatever cause the disorder proceeds, this is always proper; and I have known more benefit from it alone, in the most obstinate cases of deafness, than from all the medicines I ever used.


      THOUGH these senses are not of so great importance to man in a state of society, as the sight and hearing, yet, as the loss of them is attended with some inconveniency, they deserve our notice. They are seldom to be restored when lost; which ought to make us very attentive to their preservation by carefully avoiding whatever may in the least prove injurious to them. As there is a very great affinity betwixt the organs of tasting and smelling, whatever hurts the one generally affects the other.

      LUXURY is highly injurious to these organs. When the nose and palate are frequently stimulated by fragrant and poignant dishes, they soon lose the power of distinguishing tastes and odours with any degree of nicety. Man, in a state of nature, may perhaps have these faculties as acute as any other animal.

      THE sense of smelling may be diminished or destroyed by diseases; as, the moisture, dryness, inflammation or suppuration of that membrane which lines the inside of the nose, commonly called the olfactory membrane; the compression of the nerves which supply this membrane, or some fault in the brain itself at their origin. A defect, or too great a degree of solidity, of the small spungy bones of the upper jaw, the caverns of the forehead, &c. may likewise impair the sense of smelling. It may also be injured by a collection of foetid matter in those caverns, which keeps constantly exhaling from them. Few things are more hurtful to the sense of smelling than taking great quantities of snuff.

      WHEN the nose abounds with moisture, after gentle evacuations, such things as tend to take off irritation, and coagulate the thin sharp serum, may be applied; as the oil of anise mixed with fine flour; camphire dissolved in oil of almonds, &c., The vapours of amber, frankincense, gum-mastic, and benjamin, may likewise be received into the nose and mouth.

      FOR moistening the mucus when it is too dry, some recommend snuff made of the leaves of marjoram, mixed with the oil of amber, marjoram, and aniseed; or a sternutatory of calcined white vitriol; twelve grains of which may be mixed with two ounces of marjoram-water and filtrated. The steam or vapour of vinegar upon hot iron received up the nostrils is likewise of use for softening the mucus, opening obstructions, &c.

      IF there is an ulcer in the nose, it ought to be dressed with some emollient ointment; to which, if the pain be very great, a little laudanum may be added. If it be a venereal ulcer, it is not to be cured without mercury. In that case, the solution of the corrosive sublimate in brandy may be taken, as directed in the gutta serena. The ulcer ought likewise to be washed with it; and the fumes of cinnabar way be received up the nostrils.

      IF there be reason to suspect that the nerves which supply the organs of smelling are inert, or want stimulating, volatile salts, strong snuffs, and other things which occasion. sneezing, may be applied to the nose. The forehead may likewise be anointed with balsam of Peru, to which may be added a little of the oil of amber.

      THE taste may be diminished by crusts, filth, mucus, aphthae, pellicles, warts, &c. covering the tongue: It may be depraved by a fault of the saliva, which, being discharged into the mouth, gives the same sensation as if the food which the person takes had really a bad taste; or it may be entirely destroyed by injuries done to the nerves of the tongue and palate. Few things prove more hurtful either to the sense of tasting or smelling than obstinate colds, especially those which affect the head.

      WHEN the taste is diminished by filth, mucus, &c. the tongue ought to be scraped and frequently washed with a mixture of water, vinegar and honey, or some other detergent. When the saliva is vitiated, which seldom happens, unless in fevers or other diseases, the curing of the disorder is the cure of this symptom. To relieve it however in the mean time, the following things may be of use; if there be a bitter taste, it may be taken away by vomits, purges, and other things which evacuate bile: What is called a nidorous taste, arising from putrid humours, is corrected by the juice of citrons, oranges, and other acids. A salt taste is cured by plentiful dilution with watery liquors: An acid taste is destroyed by absorbents, and alkaline salts, as powder of oyster-shells, salt of worm-wood, &c.

      WHEN the sensibility of the nerves which supply the organs of taste is diminished, the chewing of horse-radish, or other stimulating substances, will help to recover it.


      THE sense of touching may be hurt by any thing that obstructs the nervous influence, or prevents its being regularly conveyed to the organs of touching; as pressure, extreme cold, &c. lt may likewise be hurt by too great a degree of sensibility, when the nerve is not sufficiently covered by the cuticle or scarf-skin, or where there is too great a tension of it, or it is too delicate. Whatever disorders the functions of the brain and nerves, hurts the sense of touching. Hence it appears to proceed from the same general causes as palsy and apoplexy, and requires nearly the same method of treatment.

      IN a stupor, or defect of touching, which arises from an obstruction of the cutaneous nerves, the patient must first be purged; afterwards such medicines as excite the action of the nerves, or stimulate the system, may be used. For this purpose, the spirit of hartshorn, sal volatile oleosum, horse-radish, &c. may be taken inwardly; the disordered parts, at the same time, may be frequently rubbed with fresh nettles or spirit of sal ammoniac. Blistering-plasters and sinapisms applied to the parts will likewise be of use, as also warm bathing, especially in the natural hot baths.

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