19th Century

A Glasgow Doctor Battles a Cholera Outbreak | W. Dale

Originally written in 1853; transcribed by Stephen Basdeo in 2021.

On the morning of December 21st [1853], at six o’clock,[i] I was called on by a working man to visit his wife, whom he described as having been taken with cramps about three o’clock the same morning. I went with him to his house, 115 Garscube Road, Glasgow. I found the woman scarcely breathing, and her breath cold, no pulse perceptible in the wrist-hands, arms, and legs cold, and a general blueness over the whole body. She had been purged a good deal; and was then vomiting rice-watery fluid. Nothing had been done for her, except hot irons put to her feet, for the man had no medicines in the house; a poor fire was on, and as soon as hot water could be got I gave some cayenne and brandy in hot water; this was vomited. I repeated it, with the addition of Botanic composition powder, after which she neither vomited nor purged. The medicine was given every half hour, until the patient dozed. Hot bricks to the feet, and flannel cloths wrung out of hot water to the abdomen, were applied: and it was attempted to give a hot salt bath, but from want of sufficient water and a tub large enough, this could only be applied to the feet and legs, hands and arms, with friction. She was laid in the bed again, and surrounded with warm things as far as means at hand allowed, and she breathed a little better.

I left her, and returned again in two hours with other medicine, after giving some of which she revived sufficiently to tell me she felt better. When I was about leaving her again, she asked for whisky, and as she seemed anxious for it, I allowed her a little, and she fell into a doze. At eleven o’clock I again visited her, and found her expiring. From the colour of the body and the almost entire absence of pain and excitement, the colour and nature of the vomit, and the briefness of the illness, and the perfect coldness of the breath and surface of the body, and its clamminess, and the fruitlessness of our exertions to restore warmth and circulation to the extremities, I concluded this was a case of genuine malignant cholera, and in consequence felt somewhat alarmed and anxious for the safety of the family. I examined the house, and found the walls dark-looking and damp. The whole place had an air of discomfort; the woman had been washing for two days previous, and had been drying her clothes in the house; damp stockings were hung around the bed place, and undried clothes on lines. I examined the close or yard, and found one wretched dirty old petty or closet for the whole pile of houses, and near to it some small houses where animals were kept, with much filth about them, and human excrement in the channel of the yard and near to the closet.

A working-class area of Glasgow during the 19th century

I found, on inquiry, that the woman had four children and five men to do for. No wonder that the children were not very clean nor very warmly clad and taken care of. She bore the reputation of being a most industrious woman; but had she worked the whole twenty-four hours she could not have kept things as they should be, under such circumstances, with very small means. I gave instructions to the man to see about everything being cleaned, and how to use chloride of lime. Three days after I was called, at half-past nine, a.m., to go to his little girl, four years of age. I found her in a similar condition to the mother, except that she was in a colder room, without any fire. I ordered one to be made, and stayed with her, gave her medicine myself, and did what I could to get her warm. She neither vomited nor purged after she got the medicine, but she was too far gone to restore heat. She died about eleven o’clock. On the same day the man himself began to be unwell. He took some medicine, and felt a little better. Next morning he called on me, still feeling sickly, having nervous and cold tremors running through him. I gave him a vapour bath and a vomit, and some anti-cholera powder after it. He felt better, and imprudently went to the child’s funeral.

The day was cold and damp. He was worse at night. I again was called to visit him. Whilst with him he vomited about two quarts of rice-watery fluid. He is a very big, stout man. I gave him some neutralising mixture, made him keep by the fire, ordered him to take more anti-cholera powder, and bethink him where he would go to, for I was determined he must leave that house. He soon felt better, and at half-past seven p.m. came down to see me. He did not know where to go. Nobody was willing to receive him. His father had been threatened with dismissal by his employer if he received him into his house. He found some place at last, and carried out my instructions. That night I was taken ill myself; but by taking the medicines and keeping close to the fire till I perspired freely, I soon got better. I was weakly in the morning, when I was again called to see the man. I did not go, but sent orders for him not to leave the fire, and to apply hot bran in flannel to his abdomen, and to keep on taking the medicines. He did this with the help of a young fellow and at noon that day he was well; but one of his little boys had died during the night. It is of the highest importance that the remedies should be applied in the first stage of the attack, and that they should be applied vigorously; therefore every man in this case should be able to be his own Doctor.

[i] W. Dale, Cholera, its Nature, Cause, and Cure: or, a Weapon wherewith to Oppose the Pestilence, 2nd edn (Glasgow: [n.pub], 1853), pp. 2–5. Edited by Stephen Basdeo.