Rabies is a viral disease causing inflammation of the brain. Its symptoms include agitated mood and body movements, partial paralysis and hydrophobia (fear of water). Suffering is intense, and even in the twenty-first century the prognosis for an infected person is poor. Fortunately there are effective vaccines, the first of which was produced in 1885 by Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux.
In 1778, J. Vaughan, M. D. published a book called Two Cases of the Hydrophobia: with Observations on that Disease; Together with an account of the Caesarian Section, as it was lately performed at Leicester. In it, Dr Vaughan described in detail the case histories of two patients with hydrophobia following dog bites. His book was reviewed in The Monthly Review, a London literary journal, with the reviewer praising the usefulness of Vaughan’s assiduous observations.
Both hydrophobia patients had been bitten by a “mad animal”, and both had been treated according to best practice of the time. For the first, this involved a ‘severe’ regime of sea bathing, applications to the wound of “the celebrated Ormskirk medicine” (a mixture of clay, the herb horseheal, aniseed, alum and vinegar), and doses of musk, mercury and opium. Regarding the opium, “57 grains were swallowed in the space of 14 hours, without producing any lasting sedative effect”.
Vaughan’s case histories, the reviewer concluded, should arouse skepticism about claims made for popular remedies of the time:
It is highly worth observation that though between 20 and 30 persons were bit by the same dog that wounded this patient, some of whom took the Ormskirk medicine, others only bathed, and the rest employed no remedy whatever, no one of them felt the least ill effect but himself.”
The reviewer does, however, approve of one particular treatment in vogue at the time, and of Dr Vaughan’s suggested refinement:
As a prophylactic or preventative, it has been judiciously proposed to cauterize the part with a red-hot iron, immediately after the bite. On this head the Author offers what we consider an improvement on this practice. He recommends a dilatation of the wound, if it should be small, and then filling it with gunpowder and setting fire to it.
Independent of the possible good effect which may result from the chemical action of the vitriolic acid or phlogiston on the poison, we would think that the instantaneity of the combustion is likely, in general, to excite less horror and pain that then the comparatively slow and protracted torture produced by a hot iron.”
And the Caesarian section at Leicester? It was partially successful. The mother died four days later, “a consequence … which will generally follow such a wound of the uterus, with its unavoidable exposure to the air.” The child, however, survived. Baptized “under the name of Julius Caesar”, the baby was four months old when Dr Vaughan wrote about the case, and “likely to live”.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.