Worm Infections | 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.


      THESE are chiefly of three kinds, viz. the taenia or tape-worm; the teres, or round and long worm; and the ascarides, or round and short worm. There are many other kinds of worms found in the human body; but as they proceed in a great measure from similar causes, have nearly the same symptoms, and require almost the same method of treatment, as these already mentioned, we shall not spend time in enumerating them.

      THE tape-worm is white, very long, and full of joints. It is generally bred either in the stomach or small intestines. The round and long worm is likewise bred in the small guts, and sometimes in the stomach. The round and short worms commonly lodge in the rectum, or what is called the end gut, and occasion a disagreeable itching about the seat.

      THE long round worms occasion squeamishness, vomiting, a disagreeable breath, gripes, looseness, swelling of the belly, swoonings, loathing of food, and at other times a voracious appetite, a dry cough, convulsions, epileptic fits, and sometimes a privation of speech. These worms have been known to perforate the intestines, and get into the cavity of the belly. The effects of the tape-worm are nearly the same with those of the long and round, but rather more violent.

      ANDRY says the following symptoms particularly attend the solium, which is a species of the tape-worm, viz. swoonings, privation of speech, and a voracious appetite. The round worms called ascarides, besides an itching of the anus, cause swoonings and tenesmus, or an inclination to go to stool.

      CAUSES. – Worms may proceed from various causes, but they are seldom found except in weak and relaxed stomachs, where the digestion is bad. Sedentary persons are more liable to them than the active and laborious. Those who eat great quantities of unripe fruit, or who live much on raw herbs and roots, are generally subject to worms. There seems to be a hereditary disposition in some persons to this disease. I have often seen all the children of a family subject to worms of a particular kind. They seem likewise frequently to be owing to the nurse. Children of the same family, nursed by one woman, have often worms, when those nursed by another have none.

      SYMPTOMS. The common symptoms of worms, are paleness of the countenance, and at other times, an universal flushing of the face; itching of the nose; this however is doubtful, as children pick their noses in all diseases: starting, and grinding of the teeth in sleep; swelling of the upper lip; the appetite sometimes bad, at other times quite voracious; looseness; a sour or stinking breath; a hard swelled beIly; great thirst; the urine frothy, and sometimes of a whitish colour; griping, or colic pains; an involuntary discharge of saliva, especially when asleep; frequent pains of the side, with a dry cough, and unequal pulse; palpitations of the heart; swooning; drowsiness; cold sweats; palsy; epileptic fits, with many other unaccountable nervous symptoms, which were formerly attributed to witchcraft, or the influence of evil spirits. Small bodies in the excrements resembling melon or cucumber seeds are symptoms of the tape-worm.

      I LATELY saw some very surprising effects of worms in a girl about five years of age, who used to lie for whole hours as if dead. She at last expired, and, upon opening her body, a number of the teres, or long round worms, were found in her guts, which were considerabIy inflamed; and what anatomists call an intus susceptio, or involving of one part of the gut within another, had taken place in no Iess than four different parts of the intestine canal. That worms exist in the human body there can be no doubt; and that they must sometimes be considered as a disease, is equally certain: but this is not the case so often as people imagine. The idea that worms occasion many diseases gives an opportunity to the professed worm-doctors of imposing on the credulity of mankind, and doing much mischief. They find worms in every case, and liberally throw in their antidotes, which generally consist of strong, drastic purges: I have known these given in delicate consttutions to the destruction of the patient, where there was not the least symptom of worms.

      MIEDICINE. – Though numberless medicines are extolled for killing and expelling worms, a medical writer of the present age has enumerated upwards of fifty British plants, all celebrated for killing and expelling worms, yet no disease more frequently baffles the physician`s skill. In general, the most proper medicines for their expulsion are strong purgatives; and to prevent their breeding, stomachic bitters, with now and then a glass of good wine.

      THE best purge for an adult is jalap and calomel. Five and twenty or thirty grains of the former with six or seven of the latter, mixed in syrup, may be taken early in the morning, for a dose. It will be proper that the patient keep the house all day, and drink nothing cold. The dose may be repeated once or twice a-week, for a fortnight or three weeks. On the intermediate days the patient may take a drachm of the powder of tin, twice or thrice a-day, mixed with syrup, honey or treacle.

      THOSE who do not chuse to take calomel may make use of the bitter purgatives; as aloes, hiera picra, tincture of senna, and rhubarb, &c.

      OILY medicines are sometimes found beneficial for expelling worms. An ounce of sallad oil and a table-spoonful of common salt may be taken in a glass of red port wine thrice a-day, or oftener, if the stomach will bear it. But the more common form of using oil is in clysters. Oily clysters, sweetened with sugar or honey, are very efficacious in bringing away the short round worms called ascarides, and the teres.

      THE Harrowgate water is an excellent medicine for expelling worms, especially the ascarides. As this water evidently abounds with sulphur, we may hence infer, that sulphur alone must be a good medicine in this case; which is found to be a fact. Many practitioners give flour of sulphur in very large doses, and with great success. It should be made into an electuary with honey or treacle, and taken in such quantity as to purge the patient.

      WHERE Harrowgate water cannot be obtained, sea-water may be used, which is far from being a contemptible medicine in this case. If sea-water cannot be had, common salt dissolved in water may be drunk.

      I HAVE often seen this used by country nurses with very good effect. Some flour of sulphur may be taken over night, and the salt-water in the morning.

      BUT worms, though expelled, will soon breed again, if the stomach remains weak and relaxed; to prevent which, we would recommend the Peruvian bark. Half a drachm of bark in powder may be taken in a glass of red port wine, three or four times a-day, after the above medicines have been used. Lime-water is likewise good for this purpose, or a table-spoonful of the chalybeate wine taken twice or thrIce a-day. Infusions or decoctions of bitter herbs may likewise be drank; as the infusion of tansy, water trefoil, camomile-flowers, tops of wormwood, the lesser centaury, &c.

      FOR a child of four or five years old, six grains of rhubarb, five of jalap, and two of calomel, may be mixed in a spoonful of syrup or honey, and given in the morning. The child should keep the house all day, and take nothing cold. This dose may be repeated twice a-week for three or four weeks. On the intermediate days the child may take a scruple of powdered tin and ten grains of aethiops mineral in a spoonful of treacle twice a-day. This dose must be increased or diminished according to the age of the patient.

      BISSET says, the great bastard black hellebore, or bear’s foot, is a most powerful vermifuge for the long round worms. He orders the decoction of about a drachm of the green leaves, or about fifteen grains of the dried leaves in powder, for a dose to a child betwixt four and seven years of age. This dose is to be repeated two or three times. He adds, that the green leaves made into a syrup with coarse sugar is almost the only medicine he has used for round worms for three years past. Before pressing out the juice, he moistens the bruised leaves with vinegar, which corrects the medicine. The dose is a tea-spoonful at bed-time, and one or two next morning,

      I HAVE frequently known those big bellies, which in children are commonly reckoned a sign of worms, quite removed by giving them white soap in their pottage, or other food. Tansy, garlic, and rue, are all good against worms, and may be used various ways. We might here mention many other plants, both for external and internal use, as the cabbage-bark, &c. but think the powder of tin with aethiops mineral, and the purges of rhubarb and calomel, are more to be depended on.

      BALL’S purging vermifuge powder is a very powerful medicine. It is made of equal parts of rhubarb, scammony, and calomel, with as much double refined sugar as is equal to the weight of all the other ingredients. These must be well mixed together, and reduced to fine powder. The dose for a child is from ten grains to twenty, once or twice a-week. An adult may take a drachm for a dose. A powder for the tape-worm resembling this, was long kept a secret on the Continent; it was lately purchased by the French king, and will be found under the article Powder, in the Appendix.

      PARENTS who would preserve their children from worms ought to allow them plenty of exercise in the open air; to take care that their food be wholesome and sufficiently solid: and, far as possible, to prevent their eating raw herbs, roots, or green trashy fruits. It will not be amiss to allow a child who is subject to worms, a glass of red wine after meals; as every thing that braces and strengthens the stomach is good both for preventing and expelling the vermin.

      WE think it necessary here to warn people of their danger who buy cakes, powders, and other worm medicines, at random from quacks, and give them to their children without proper care. The principal ingredients in most of these medicines is mercury, which is never to be trifled with. I lately saw a shocking instance of the danger of this conduct. A girl who had taken a dose of worm powder, bought of a travelling quack, went out, and perhaps was so imprudent as to drink cold water, during its operation. She immediately swelled, and died on the following day, with all the symptoms of having been poisoned.

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