A History of Lawrence County Physicians and a Review of Medicine as Practiced 100 years ago.
By Tom Kirkwood and notes from H. V. Lewis MD.
Published by LCHS from Series of Articles published in the Daily Record in the 1970’s
The Illinois Medical Society was an outgrowth of a Medical Society that was first organized in Lawrenceville. Lawrence County and Lawrenceville should be quite proud of this society which was formed here, in 1846. The Illinois Medical Society born in the General Assembly of 1877 was said to have been conceived by the Aesculapian Society of the Wabash Valley in 1856, when this society originally organized in 1846 as the Lawrenceville Aesculapian Medical Society. A committee was appointed to go before the General Assembly with a request that a law regulating the practice of medicine and requiring the registration of births and deaths be enacted. When the law went into effect it was found that of the 7400 physicians in the state, only half were graduates of medical schools, 490 were using fraudulent credentials and a good many were practicing under assumed names.
In the 1830s and '40s the state was sparsely populated. There were no daily papers, medical journals were scarce, and no telephones, no telegraphs and no railroads were available. The Postal Service was primitive. The average physician had to depend on himself and was professionally very lonely. It was under these circumstances that a few physicians in Lawrenceville and Lawrence County invited some colleagues from Crawford County to a meeting in Lawrenceville in 1846. They exchanged views and ideas and the experience was so valuable to all of them that this society was organized and agreed to meet in Lawrenceville again. In 1847 the Society was incorporated; it soon had members from Danville, Champaign Urbana in Illinois, and Clinton, Rockville and Terre Haute in Indiana. The society grew to include physicians across the state of Illinois and several from Indiana.
During the years preceding and following 1850 our people had malaria, the various dysenteries and typhoid fever, these diseases being very common in River towns where streams were damned to produce waterpower for mills. These towns were trading centers and the people came from all directions to buy and sell and have grain ground into flour and to swap gossip and diseases.
At intervals epidemics of cholera, diphtheria, smallpox and other contagious diseases occurred. Whooping cough and "summer" complaint were great killers of young children and some estimated that half the children died before reaching the age of five years. Pneumonia, called "lung" fever was very prevalent as was rheumatic fever. Malaria was the only disease for which there was an effective remedy.
The following excerpt from a letter in 1846 gives some idea of how a patient was treated:
Father has taken sick on October 3 and died on the 14th. He was taken with a chill while on his way to church meeting. We sent for a doctor who said he had bilious fever and started giving him quinine and Dover's powders. His hands and feet got cold and pulseless that night but he breathed natural and easy and the doctor concluded it was congestive chill. The doctor had me boil red peppers in vinegar and rub his hands and feet with this. We gave wine inwardly and washed him with brandy and red peppers in vinegar. The doctor put a blister on him and it drew well. Relatives came in and asked father if he was willing to die and he said "yes". Father was weak and could not talk. We kept on giving him the wine and washing him with peppers in vinegar and he began to get warm. We put hot bricks in his hands and feet and his pulse began to return. By night he seemed much better and I asked him if he wanted to be shaved and he said yes. He was, and resigned but grew weaker and died without a struggle.
This letter gives a vivid description of how a sick man was treated in the 1840s and the same type of treatment was used for many years after that.