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From the Schofield Letters: Medical Matters

I am working my way through a collection of approximately 10,000 letters which belonged to the family of Yates County's Admiral, Frank H. Schofield. The letters were written by him and to him. To date I have read around 2,500 letters covering the period from 1886 to 1895. My original intent in this project was to reconstruct the adult life and naval career of Frank Schofield, but there is so much more in those letters relating especially to social history. One topic that has intrigued me, and at times amused me, was how the family members dealt with medical matters. For example, in a letter to Frank from his wife, Clarabel,

"I was real sick last night. I had a spell. I caught cold somehow in an internal organ and suffered dreadfully for a few hours, but after hot foot baths and mustard and boiling drinks administered by Ma, I recovered and today I am as good as new."

Frank mentioned in a letter to his mother that when his ship started out on a cruise, he was usually seasick for three or four days until he got used to being at sea. Ma Schofield wrote back to him,

"Don't give up when you are seasick; you might fall overboard. Say Frank, if you will buy some commercial note paper and wear it across your stomach, it will prevent seasickness. No, this has been tried. I can see you laugh."

Early in their marriage, Clarabel Schofield stayed with Frank's family on Head Street (now North Avenue) in Penn Yan while Frank was at sea. At the time she helped Frank's sister, May, sew her trousseau in preparation for her own marriage. In a letter to Frank, Clarabel mentioned that she was experiencing abdominal pains and she thought the cause of it was Ma's sewing machine. She wrote that, "her nerves were unstrung and she cried at the slightest provocation." She went to see Dr. Doubleday of Penn Yan who diagnosed her problem as "female weakness."

He told her that the leading cause of "female problems" was running up stairs (so Clarabel told Frank that he had to stop chasing her up stairs.) The second cause was using a treadle sewing machine, so it was decided that Clarabel would no longer help May sew.

Another time, Clarabel developed a constant cough, this time at her home on the eastern shore of Maryland. There was some concern that it was consumption (tuberculosis), although it turned out not to be. Her doctor told her that the only thing that will kill the germs of consumption was whiskey and he prescribed whiskey and glycerin for her cough. She knew this would present an issue with the Schofield family, all of whom (except Frank) believed in temperance. Clarabel wrote to Frank:

"I wrote to May and asked her about it, but did not wait for her reply as they all seemed to think my cough very bad. There! I am not trying to pose as an invalid and rouse your sympathies; I just wanted to tell you that I had taken to drink. I hope you will not think it is very wicked of me. I wouldn't do it, Dearest, were it not for the little undefined dread of death."

Frank's sister, May, had a serious illness that bothered her off and on for a few years. At first Ma Schofield described it as "bilious colic" but it was later determined to be problems with her gall bladder. Her complexion was yellowish, she was bedridden, weak and in terrible pain. Dr. Sampson (after whom the Sampson Theatre in Penn Yan was named) came to the house for several consecutive days. One day he gave her morphine for the pain. Ma wrote to Clarabel and Frank:

"This morning May was so weak and when Doctor Sampson came, he found her looking so yellow and her stomach so tender sore especially over the gall bladder that he proposed her taking olive oil. He gave her a large teacup full and a third full besides. He made her drink it down and brought a lemon for her to suck. He made her sit up straight in bed for one hour, then lie on her right side to two hours so as to remove the obstruction from her liver. He stayed about an hour and told stories, tried to divert her all he could. When he went, he cautioned me not to let her by any means vomit it up. He said at the end of two hours, dress her and have her walk. Those two hours on her right side were terrible. Oh, how she suffered."

Well, she did throw it all up and the Doctor had to give her a second olive oil treatment. Within a few days she started to recover, although she had reoccurrence over the course of the next year while she was teaching school out in Ohio. She wrote to Frank who was on board a ship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the time:

"Will you do something for me and not tell anyone? Last night, from nine until one, I suffered with this awful colic. There was nothing to do but grin and bear it as I had no morphine and nothing else seems to quiet me. I can't call in a Doctor every time I have a spell as it's too expensive and all they do is give morphine. Now Frank, you know that I wouldn't take it unless positively necessary. I thought that perhaps you get Dr. Bailey [the ship's doctor and a friend of Frank] to put up some powders and then you send them to me. I will be very careful and won't take it unless positively necessary, but it's awful to suffer when there is something to relieve. Please do this at once if you can and don't under any circumstances say anything about it to home. You know how dreadfully and uselessly they would worry."

Sure enough, in a letter to May from Frank about a week later, there were ten little paper packets, all neatly folded and tied with a ribbon, still with a white powder in each one. He wrote:

"Dr. Bailey says to go to a doctor of the old school and tell him to make a thorough examination. I enclose the powders. For the less severe attacks, take 1/6 grain and if not relieved in 12 minutes, take another. For severe attacks use the same rule with 1/4 grain powders. There is not enough of the powders to form a habit, but use them with discretion. Consult a doctor at once!"

Since the morphine was still in the packets, one could speculate that May got better by the time they arrived.

A few final observations on medical treatments of the time: Ma Schofield had some pain in her back and she sought treatment from Dr. Sampson in Penn Yan. He prescribed a series of twenty electric shock treatments at the cost of $1 each. Ma decided against it because they could not afford the treatment. Clarabel, who seemed to be continually sick, took opium for a cold she had one winter. For headaches, she would take heroin tablets. Before one gets too judgmental here, it should be remembered that this was the era of "patent medicines," many of which had narcotic as their secret ingredients. For example, Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup for teething or colicky babies was laced with a mixture of morphine (65 mg. per ounce) and alcohol. Although many became addicted to these medicines, there is absolutely no evidence of that in the Schofield family.

A "muckraking" writer, Samuel Hopkins Adams (a New Yorker and graduate of Hamilton College) exposed the patent medicine industry in a series of articles in Colliers magazine titled "The Great American Fraud." The public outcry resulting from those articles was a major factor in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. That forced manufacturers to list ingredients on labels and effectively ended the era of at least those types of patent medicines.

by Rich MacAlpine


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