April 18, 2013

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: More Old Names for Old Diseases

I was looking through the "Ladies of Plymouth Church Cookbook" from Des Moines, Iowa, 1876, when I encountered some disease names in the medicinal recipes section that I was unfamiliar with. Turns out these are all skin conditions. I decided to learn what they were:

Wen:  an epidermoid cyst (also known as a sebaceous cyst).  Commonly caused by entrapment of the surface epithelium of the skin.  The proferred treatment from 1876 was to wash the lesion in common salt dissolved in water everyday and it will be removede in a short time.  Today we know these lesions will not go away on their own.  Treatment is conservative surgical removal.

A felon:  Closed-space infections of the fingertip pulp most commonly the thumb and index finger.  In 1876 it was recommended that a strong mecurial (containing mercury) ointment be spread on the lesion with a linen cloth as soon as it first appears.  The treatment today is antibiotics and incision and drainage.

Salt-rheum:  various cutaneous eruptions, particularly eczema. Salt-rheum was treated in 1876 by steeping sweet ferns and using it as a drink or by bathing the affected parts.  Today, depending on the specific lesion, selected ointments are prescribed.

For references and additional reading, see the Extras section.

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