Spotted (Putrid) Fever | 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.


      THIS may be called the pestilential fever of Europe, as in many of its symptoms it bears a great resemblance to that dreadful disease the plague. Persons of a lax habit, a melancholy disposition, and those whose vigour has been wasted by long fasting, watching, hard labour, excessive venery, frequent salivations, &c. are most liable to it.

      CAUSES. – This fever is occasioned by foul air, from a number of people being confined in a narrow place, not properly ventilated; from putrid animal and vegetable effluvia, &c. Hence it prevails in camps, jails, hospitals, and infirmaries, especially where such places are too much crowded, and cleanliness is neglected.

      A CLOSE constitution of the air, with long rainy or foggy weather, likewise occasions putrid fevers. They often succeed great inundations in low and marshy countries, especially when these are preceded or followed by a hot and sultry season.

      LIVING too much upon animal food, without a proper mixture of vegetables, or eating fish or flesh that has been kept too long, are likewise apt to occasion this kind of fever. Hence sailors on long voyages, and the inhabitants of besieged cities, are very often visited with putrid fevers.

      CORN that has been greatly damaged by rainy seasons, or long keeping, and water which has become putrid by stagnation, &c. may likewise occasion this fever.

      DEAD carcases tainting the air, especially in hot seasons, are very apt to occasion putrid diseases. Hence this kind of fever often prevails in countries which are the scenes of war and bloodshed. This shews the propriety of removing burying grounds, slaughter-houses, &c. at a proper distance from great towns.

      WANT of cleanliness is a very general cause of putrid fevers. Hence they prevail amongst the poor inhabitants of large towns, who breathe a confined unwholesome air and neglect cleanliness. Such mechanics as carry on dirty employments, and are constantly confined within doors, are likewise very liable to this disease.

      WE shall only add, that putrid, malignant, or spotted fevers are highly infectious; and are therefore often communicated by contagion. For which reason all persons ought to keep at a distance from those affected with such diseases, unless their attendance is absolutely necessary

      SYMPTOMS. – The malignant fever is generally preceded by a remarkable weakness, or loss of strength, without any apparent cause. This is sometimes so great, that the patient can scarce walk, or even sit upright, without being in danger of fainting away. His mind too is greatly dejected; he sighs, and is full of dreadful apprehensions.

      THERE is a nausea, and sometimes a vomiting of bile, a violent pain of the head, with a strong pulsation or throbbing of the temporal arteries; the eyes often appear red and inflamed, with a pain at the bottom of the orbit; there is a noise in the ears, the breathing is laborious, and often interrupted with a sigh; the patient complains of a pain about the region of the stomach, and in his back and loins; his tongue is at first white, but afterwards it appears black and chaped; and his teeth are covered with a black crust. He sometimes passes worms both upwards and downwards, is affected with tremors, or shaking, and often becomes delirious.

      IF blood is let, it appears dissolved, or with a very small degree of cohesion, and soon becomes putrid; the stools smell extremely foetid, and are sometimes of a greenish, black, or reddish cast. Spots of a pale purple, dun, or black colour, often appear upon the skin, and sometimes there are violent haemorrhages, or discharges of blood from the mouth, eyes, nose, &c.

      PUTRID fevers may be distinguished from the inflammatory, by the smallness of the pulse, the great dejection of mind, the dissolved state of the blood, the petechiae, or purple spots, and the putrid smell of the excrements. They may likewise be distinguished from the low or nervous fever by the heat and thirst being greater, the urine of a higher colour, and the loss of strength, dejection of mind, and all the other symptoms more violent.

      IT sometimes happens, however, that the inflammatory, nervous, and putrid symptoms are so blended together, as to render it very difficult to determine to which class the fever belongs. In this case the greatest caution and skill are requisite. Attention must be paid to those symptoms which are most prevalent, and both the regimen and medicines adapted to them.

      INFLAMMATORY and nervous fevers may be converted into malignant and putrid, by too hot a regimen, or improper medicines.

      THE duration of putrid fevers is extremely uncertain; sometimes they terminate betwixt the seventh and fourteenth day, and at other times they are prolonged for five or six weeks. Their duration depends greatly upon the constitution of the patient, and the manner of treating the disease.

      THE most favourable symptoms are a gentle looseness after the fourth or fifth day, with a warm mild sweat. These, when continued for a considerable time, often carry off the fever, and should never be imprudently stopped. Small miliary pustules appearing between the petechiae, or purple spots, are likewise favourable, as also hot scabby eruptions about the mouth and nose. It is a good sign when the pulse rises upon the use of wine, or other cordials, and the nervous symptoms abate; deafness coming on towards decline of the fever, is likewise often a favourable symptom, as are abscesses in the groin, or parotid glands. Deafness is not always a favourable symptom in this disease. Perhaps it is only so when occasioned by abscesses formed within the ears.

      AMONGST the unfavourable symptoms may be reckoned an excessive looseness, with a hard swelled belly; large black or livid blotches breaking out upon the skin; apthae in the mouth, cold clammy sweats; blindness; change of the voice; a wild staring of the eyes; difficulty of swallowing; inability to put out the tongue; and a constant inclination to uncover the breast. When the sweat and saliva are tinged with blood, and the urine is black, or deposits a black sooty sediment, the patient is in great danger. Starting of the tendons, and foetid, ichorus involuntary stools, attended with coldness of the extremities, are generally the forerunners of death.

      REGIMEN. – The treatment of this disease ought to endeavour, as far as possible, to counteract the putrid tendency of the humours; to support the patient’s strength and spirits; and to assist Nature in expelling the cause of the disease by gently promoting perspiration and the other evacuations.

      IT has been observed, that putrid fevers are often occasioned by unwholesome air, and of course they must be aggravated by it. Care should therefore be taken to prevent the air from stagnating in the patient’s chamber, to keep it cool, and renew it frequently, by opening the doors or windows of some adjacent apartment. The breath and perspiration of persons in perfect health soon render the air of a small apartment noxious; but this will sooner happen from the perspiration and breath of a person whose whole of humours are in a putrid state.

      BESIDES the frequent admission or fresh air, we would recommend the use of vinegar, verjuice, juice of lemon, Seville orange, or any kind of vegetable acid that can be most readily obtained. These ought frequently to be sprinkled upon the floor, the bed, and every part of the room. They may also be evaporated with a hot iron, or by boiling, &c. The fresh skins of lemons or oranges ought likewise to be laid in different parts of the room, and they should be frequently held to the patient’s nose. The use of acids in this manner would not only prove very refreshing to the patient, but would likewise tend to prevent the infection from spreading among those who attend him. Strong scented herbs, as rue, tansy, rosemary, wormwood, &c. may likewise be laid in different parts of the house, and smelled to by those who go near the patient.

      THE patient must not only be kept cool, but likewise quiet and easy. The least noise will affect his head, and the smallest fatigue will be apt to make him faint.

      FEW things are or greater importance in this disease than acids, which ought to be mixed with all the patient’s food as well as drink. Orange, lemon, or vinegar whey are all very proper, and may be drank by turns, according to the patient’s inclination. They may be rendered cordial by the addition of wine in such quantity as the patient’s strength seems to require. When he is very low, he may drink negus, with only one half water, and sharpened with the juice of orange or lemon. In some cases a glass of clear wine may now and then be allowed. The most proper wine is Rhenish; but if the body be open, red port or claret is to be preferred.

      WHEN the body is bound, a tea-spoonful of the cream of tartar may be put into a cup of the patient’s drink, as there is occasion; or he may drink a decoction of tamarinds, which will both quench his thirst, and promote a discharge by stool.

      IF camomile-tea will sit upon stomach, it is a very proper drink in this disease. It may be sharpened by adding to every cup of the tea ten or fifteen drops of the elixir of vitrol.

      THE food must be light, as panada or groat gruel, to which a little wine may added, if the patient be weak and low; and they ought all to be sharpened with the juice of orange, the jelly of currants, or the like. The patient ought likewise to eat freely of ripe fruits, as roasted apples, currant or gooseberry tarts, preserved cherries, or plums, &c.

      TAKING a little food or drink frequently, not only supports the spirits, but counteracts the putrid tendency of the humours; for which reason the patient ought frequently to be sipping small quantities of some of the acid liquors mentioned above, or any that may be more agreeable to his palate, or more readily obtained.

      IF he be delirious, his feet and hands ought to be frequently fomented with a strong infusion of camomile flowers. This, or an infusion of the bark, to such as can afford it, cannot fail to have a good effect. Fomentations of this kind not only relieve the head, by relaxing the vessels in the extremities, but as their contents are absorbed, and taken into the system, they may assist in preventing the putrescency of the humours.

      MEDICINE. – If a vomit be given at the beginning of this fever, it will hardly fail to have a good effect; but if the fever has gone on for some days, and the symptoms are violent, vomits are not quite so safe. The body however is always to be kept gently open by clysters, or mild laxative medicines.

      BLEEDING is seldom necessary in putrid fevers. If there be signs of an inflammation, it may sometimes be permitted at the first onset; but the repetition of it generally proves hurtful.

      BLISTERING plasters are never to be used unless in the greatest extremities. If the petechiae or spots should suddenly disappear, the patient’s pulse sink remarkably, and a delirium, with other bad symptoms, come on, blistering may be permitted. In this case the blistering plasters are to be applied to the head, and inside of the legs or thighs. But as they are sometimes apt to occasion a gangrene, we would rather recommend warm cataplasms or poultices of mustard and vinegar to be applied to the feet, having recourse to blisters only in the utmost extremities.

      IT is common in the beginning of this fever to give the emetic tartar in small doses, repeated every second or third hour, till it shall either vomit, purge, or throw the patient into a sweat. This practice is very proper, provided it be not pushed so far as to weaken the patient.

      A VERY ridiculous notion has long prevailed, of expelling the poisonous matter of malignant diseases by trifling doses of cordial or alexipharmic medicines. In consequence of this notion, the contrayerva-root, the cordial confection, the mithridate, &c. have been extolled as infallible remedies. Thcre is reason however to believe, that these seldom do much good. Where cordials are necessary, We know none that is superior to good wine; and therefore, again recommend it both as the safest and best. Wine, with acids and antiseptics, are the only things to be relied on in the cure of malignant fevers.

      IN the most dangerous species of this disease, when it is attended with purple, livid, or black spots, the Peruvian bark must be administered. I have seen it, when joined with acids, prove successful, even in cases where the petechiae had the most threatening aspect. But, to answer this purpose, it must not only be given in large doses, but duly persisted in.

      THE best method of administering the bark is certainly in substance. An ounce of it in powder may be mixt with half an English pint of water, and the same quantity of red wine, and sharpened with the elixir, or the spirit of vitriol, which will both make it sit easier on the stomach, and render it more beneficial. Two or three ounces of the syrup of lemon may be added, and two table-spoonfuls of the mixture taken every two hours, or oftener, if the stomach is able to bear it.

      THOSE who cannot take the bark in substance may infuse it in wine, as recommended in the preceding disease.

      IF there be a violent looseness, the bark must be boiled in red wine with a little cinnamon, and sharpened with the elixir of vitriol, as above. Nothing can be more beneficial in this kind of looseness than plenty of acids, and such things as promote a gentle perspiration.

      IF the patient be troubled with vomiting, a dram of the salt of wormwood, dissolved in an ounce and half of fresh lemon-juice, and made into a draught with an ounce of simple cinnamon-water, and a bit of sugar, may be given, and repeated as often as it is necessary.

      IF swellings of the glands appear, their suppuration is to be promoted by the application of poultices, ripening cataplasms, &c. And as soon as there is any appearance of matter in them, they ought to be laid open, and the poultices continued.

      I HAVE known large ulcerous sores break out in various parts of the body, in the decline of this fever, of a livid gangrenous appearance, and a most putrid cadaverous smell. These gradually healed, and the patient recovered, by the plentiful use of Peruvian bark and wine, sharpened with the spirits of vitriol.

      FOR preventing putrid fevers we would recommend a strict regard to cleanliness; a dry situation; sufficient exercise in the open air; wholesome food, and a moderate use of generous liquors. Infection ought above all things to be avoided. No constitution is proof against it. I have known persons seized with a putrid fever, by only making a single visit to a patient in it; others have caught it by lodging for one night in a town where it prevailed: and some by attending the funerals of such as died of it. The late Sir John Pringle expressed a concern lest these cautions should prevent people from attending their friends or relations when afflicted with putrid fevers. I told him I meant only to discourage unnecessary attendance, and mentioned a number of instances where putrid fevers had proved fatal to persons, who were rather hurtful than beneficial to the sick. This sagacious physician agreed with me, in thinking that a good doctor and a careful nurse were the only necessary attendants; and that all others not only endangered themselves, but, generally, by their solicitude and ill-directed care, hurt the sick.

      WHEN a putrid fever seizes any person in a family, the greatest attention is necessary to prevent the disease from spreading. The sick ought to be placed in a large apartment, as remote from the rest of the family as possible; he ought likewise to be kept extremely clean, and should have fresh air frequently let into his chamber; whatever comes from him should be immediately removed, his linen should be frequently changed, and those in health ought to avoid all unnecessary communication with him.

      ANY one who is apprehensive of having caught the infection, ought immediately to take a vomit, and to work it off by drinking plentifully of camomile tea. This may be repeated in a day or two, if the apprehensions still continue, or any unfavourable symptoms appear.

      THE person ought likewise to take an infusion of the bark and camomile flowers for his ordinary drink; and before he goes to bed, he may drink an English pint of pretty strong negus, or a few glasses of generous wine. I have been frequently obliged to follow this course, when malignant fevers prevailed, and have likewise recommended it to others with constant success.

      PEOPLE fly to bleeding and purging as antidotes against infection; but these are so far from securing them, that they often, by debilitating the body, increase the danger.

      THOSE who wait upon the sick in putrid fevers, ought always to have a piece of spunge or a handkerchief dipt in vinegar, or juice of lemon, to smell to while near the patient. They ought likewise to wash their hands, and, if possible, to change their clothes, before they go into company.

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