Because there are so many people here in California who are as hostile to vaccinating their children as many of Cotton Mather’s neighbors in Boston at the turn of the eighteenth century were hostile to inoculation, I thought I’d do a little research on three-hundred year old measles medical management. There was no such thing as a vaccination or inoculation for measles then, so let’s see what Mather’s 1713 advice on nursing a patient through measles looks like. (You can click on the link to see the full PDF of his pamphlet–it’s only four pages long.)
Mather offers loads of natural remedies for the symptoms of measles. Above all, he is against the “pernicious Method of Over-doing and Over-heating, and giving things to force Nature out of its own orderly way of proceeding. Before we go any further, let this Advice for the Sick, be principally attended to; Don’t kill ’em! That is to say, with mischevous Kindness. Indeed, if we stopt here and said no more, this were enough to save more Lives, than our Wars have destroy’d,” 1.
I’ve noticed that in reading a number of eighteenth-century medical advice books and pamphlets, measles and smallpox are lumped together in terms of their recommended treatment. That is, the writers recognize that these are different diseases, principally because the measles rash doesn’t suppurate and burst open the way smallpox does. I’ve also noticed an unexpectedly consistent invocation of nature by medical writers from eighteenth-century amateurs like Mather to the trained physicians of the later eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries. That is, nature is evoked as the physician’s friend–everyone poses against unnatural behavior, choices, and cures, and everyone wants to enlist nature on his side. (I wonder if this is related to the religious and theological resonance of the word unnatural, at least in the Anglo-American protestant mind.)
In any case, back to the 1713 advice to follow the course of nature: Mather recommends a “comfortable warmth,” for the patient, who will have chills and fever, but be careful as “Sweating must not be indulged,” and “a Gentle Vomit in the beginning” can help, (2). Here are some suggestions for herbal remedies in the throes of the illness, also on p. 2:
Mather doesn’t address the prospect of blindness or death, although on page 1 he warns that all patients should of course be “first hopefully Reconciled unto God.” I guess that’s the best that some of our fellow citizens can hope for in the midst of this needless, stupid, and utterly preventable outbreak.
Maybe we historians need to tell some of these stories so that people realize that these so-called “childhood diseases” can maim, kill, or shorten a life. I am the granddaughter of a man I never knew, because he died at age 38 from heart valve damage caused by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever. He left a widow alone to raise their 9- and 7-year old daughters. Had he lived in the age of antibiotics, he would probably have lived to a very ripe old age. These modern anti-vaxxers probably make promiscuous use of antibiotics when their children need them. So why the hostility to vaccination, which is even safer and more benign than a course of antibiotics?