Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dysentery and "Summer Complaint"

Thanks to the good people of the Special Collections Department of the St. Louis Public Library, I was able to document some of my speculation from yesterday.  When I was working on the Jones/Wainright history in Cincinnati, I became acutely aware of the problem of cholera in this and every other river city in the 1800s.  In one of the Wainright families, the father and the son were dead within days of each other due to cholera.

In researching this topic I learned what a significant problem this was because they didn't even understand what caused the illness at the time.  What was interesting is the fact that a black man had the answer, but was ignored.
Secondly, a Cincinnati black made a suggestion that, if followed, would have ended the cholera crisis. Charles Hammond, the Daily Gazette's editor, stated: It is an old saying that in every emergency "even the weak may give some help." Mr. Henry Boyd, a man of color, has suggested that the source of cholera is in the water, and that it may be removed by boiling all the water we use and letting it cool again before used. This is a very simple process which can produce evil to no one. Even our country friends of the market may boil and bottle their water, before they come to the city, and if the theory be well, bring it with them and incur no risk.
The above quote is from a great article that summarizes what was going on in Cincinnati and up and down the river during this period.  If you want to know more, you can "google" the Cincinnati Historical Society and search for the article by Carter, Ruth C.  It is called  "Cincinnatians and Cholera: Attitudes toward the Epidemics of 1832 and 1849." Queen City Heritage 50 (Fall 1992): 32-48.

Unfortunately, the record they had for Richard Ryan listed his age as 5 years, 8 months.  "Our" Richard would have been 8 years old if he died in 1865 so I will have to continue to look for him elsewhere.  Several of the people listed on the Death Record for St. Louis in 1865 died of "summer complaint" -- the common name for what we now call cholera.

The Death Record did exist for Hugh Matthew, however. He died of "dysentery" in 1870.  Dysentery is defined in an online dictionary as "an inflammatory disorder of the lower intestinal tract, usually caused by a bacterial, parasitic, or protozoan infection and resulting in pain, fever, and severe diarrhea, often accompanied by the passage of blood and mucus".

My thoughts go to the people of Haiti who are trying to survive the recent earthquake and deal with the lack of safe drinking water -- a problem all too common around the globe.  A few years ago I was working on a project with the Greater Cincinnati Water Works.  They provided me with a graph of the number of illnesses and deaths in Cincinnati from typhoid before and after they started treating the water and eventually adding chlorine.


I realized that I have to look up words like "summer complaint", "dysentery" and "typhoid".  We take it for granted that we will not lose family members to something so preventable.  I need to remind myself to be aware of opportunities to make a difference for others dealing with this curse.

1 comment:

  1. Hello - I'm not related to the families you're researching (that I know of), but I also encountered the term "summer complaint" while doing research on my own family, and googled it, curious. This result came up. Thanks for the info, and for putting it in context. What a shame we didn't listen to Mr. Boyd all those years ago - maybe some more lives would have been saved.

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