Hal Roth - May 2006
Old News from Delmarva
Rabies, also called hydrophobia, has been known since ancient times and is one of the world’s most dreaded diseases. The virus is transmitted to humans through the contaminated saliva of a rabid animal. The incubation period can be as short as a few days or as long as a year. Not all persons bitten develop the disease, but once symptoms appear, it is nearly always fatal.
During the nineteenth century, rabies was a major health concern in America. Old newspapers are filled with reports of “mad” dogs and of citizens suffering agonizing deaths after having been bitten by infected animals. Following are a few typical accounts posted between 1830 and 1899.
“Mad dogs and rumors of mad dogs are causing anxiety in several sections of Caroline County.”
“A strange dog, thought by some to be suffering from rabies, went through Greensborough on Friday of last week. Several persons armed themselves with shotguns and went after him. After a good deal of excitement the dog was killed near the steamboat wharf.”
“A mad dog was killed by Casper Camper Saturday night last. The brute had come over Hillsborough Bridge and had bitten several dogs before reaching Mr. Camper’s. Thomas Taylor, colored, shot it in the afternoon, and it disappeared. Saturday night another colored man was attacked on the Denton-Hillsborough road. Mr. Camper went out with his gun and gave the animal his quietus.”
“Several cases of hydrophobia among dogs have been reported in Goldsborough. Three dogs were shot on Wednesday evening of this week.”
“On Saturday afternoon a large black dog, showing all the signs of having the hydrophobia, made his appearance on Baltimore Street and dashed up the street at the top of his speed until he came to a restaurant, the street door of which happened to be open. Through the open door the dog went and into the midst of some half dozen men who were in the barroom. An instant scampering and scattering of the bipeds took place by the doors and windows, and two, not being able to get out quickly enough, climbed to the top of the bar counter for safety, leaving the quadruped master of the situation. The doors were shut upon the intruder, and for some time he was left alone in the quarters, the driven-out contending themselves with glimpses through the keyholes and shutters. A policeman fired at the dog, but although the ball lodged in his body, it seemed to have no effect upon him as he turned upon the policeman and seized the pistol in his mouth. A second bullet had the effect of driving him off, and he ran back into the street, where a crowd of men and boys followed him for several squares, yelling, firing and throwing stones at the beast. After a few moments of this exciting chase, Policeman Baker killed the animal by a well-directed shot. The fun was lively while it lasted and created a great excitement in the neighborhood.”
“On Wednesday last, medical aide was called in to Mr. John Wolf, who complained of a violent pain in his shoulder, extending to his neck. It was supposed to be a rheumatic attack and treated accordingly. On Friday, when Dr. Runkle saw the patient, who was about 22 years and 6 months old, he was struck with a general wildness in the eye and a general aspect of alarm. These symptoms, for the first time, induced an idea that the case was very different from what it had heretofore been supposed. The doctor asked for some water, and as soon as it was brought, the patient shrunk back with alarm. [Literally, the word hydrophobia means fear of water.] The water was then taken out of his sight and poured from one vessel to another. The sound still produced a more serious alarm in the patient and left no longer any doubt of the nature of the disease. Upon a strict enquiry, it was found that Mr. Wolf had been to Philadelphia in the month of December last and was bit in the calf of the leg by a dog. No apprehension was excited, nor did any suspicion arise of any ill consequences until Friday last.
“The nature of the disease being ascertained, Mr. Wolf felt his situation and expressed his conviction that his death was inevitable. He requested his father to put him in irons. This his father refused to do. The young man then had the irons secured, put a padlock on, locked it and gave the key to his father. He then desired to see the Reverend Mr. Wack, with whom he had much religious conversation, prayed with much fervor and resigned himself to the will of his Creator. Soon after the departure of Mr. Wack the disorder attained its height, and Mr. Wolf died about 6 o’clock on Saturday evening.”
“About nine weeks ago, while passing along the street, Miss Margaret Dabaugh, aged between eighteen and nineteen years, was bitten in one of her fingers by a small dog. The wound produced was slight, the teeth of the animal scarcely penetrating the flesh. The finger quickly healed and the occurrence was soon entirely forgotten. On Friday last the young lady experienced a pricking sensation in her right arm, extending from the finger in which she had been bitten to the farthest extremity of her shoulder, and noticed that the tip of her finger was slightly inflamed. When called upon to do some domestic work, she complained that her arm pained her so badly that she could do nothing that required its use.
“Up to this time no fears of serious consequences were entertained by either the lady or her friends. On Saturday afternoon she grew worse, when a physician was summoned to alleviate her suffering. On examining her, he thought he discovered symptoms of hydrophobia, but he was not fully confirmed in his mind as in the correctness of his conclusions. During the night she became alarmingly worse, being thrown into spasms, which continued at intervals until half past 11 o’clock yesterday morning, when stupefying drugs were administered and she was put to rest.
“Another physician was called to her early on Sunday morning, who had treated a case of hydrophobia. On seeing her condition, he said she was afflicted with that incurable malady.
“When in paroxysms, she was a sad sight to behold. She foamed much at the mouth, exhibited great nervous irritability, breathed with much difficulty and appealed piteously to those about her to keep at a distance, as if fearful that she might do them personal injury. During one of her spasms a dog entered the room in which she was lying. As soon as her eyes fell on the animal, she became perfectly furious, and not until it was removed did her agitated feelings undergo a subsidence. The sight of water also increased the violence of her convulsions. From the time she got the first severe spasms until drugs were administered, she was tied to a rocking chair. Occasionally she would spring up violently, carrying the chair with her, although held by a gentleman. When her agitated feelings were subdued, she was laid on a sofa, to which she was secured until she died.”
“Last week a Mr. Ludlam died of hydrophobia after having been bitten by his dog four weeks previously. Three doctors were unable to do anything whatever to lessen the tortures from which the unfortunate victim labored. Chloroform was used at times, but it seemed to have no effect on the patient. The physicians did all in their power for him, but he gradually grew worse, and finally, so terrible were his spasms that they found it necessary to tie him with sheets upon his bed; but in his struggles he tore them to ribbons, and ever broke the bedstead upon which he was lying. It required the combined strength of six men to hold him during his struggles, and up to the time of his death the spasms continued of the most violent character. Mr. Ludlam was perfectly conscious during the whole time.”
“Last Monday morning, when in his effort to swallow a cup of tea at his breakfast table, Mr. Butler was seized with a violent paroxysm and convulsive tremor, and to his surprise discovered that his muscles would not convey the drink to his mouth. He then tried to eat an egg and bread but could not do so. A few hours later he recognized symptoms of hydrophobia and realized his condition. He begged his friends to keep away from him and ran up and down stairs with a stick in his hands, endeavoring to strike and bite every person who approached him. He tore the clothing from his body and clutching at his breast shrieked: ‘There are mad dogs here.’ Doctors were called and were obliged to tie him down and finally succeeded in injecting morphine into his arm. He lost the power of speech, then barked like a dog while streams of foam poured from his mouth. Late Tuesday night he died.”
“William Ellick, a negro, died yesterday under an attack of hydrophobia. He was bitten last summer by a coach dog as he was trying to muzzle him. Ellick’s wife was bitten at the same time, and she burned her wound with caustic, but her husband paid no attention to his hurt. It healed and gave him no more trouble until last Wednesday, when he fell in the street in a fit. He was attacked with spasms, which extended over his entire body. In his home he screamed and yelled and seemed to be in the greatest agony. He thought that someone was going to murder his wife and children, and when anyone approached him, he tried his best to strike him. Three physicians applied electric batteries to Ellick’s body, but he did not improve under them. His convulsions continued until yesterday morning, and then he died.”
Some of the details in the following report, especially the time frame, are highly improbable.
“Major King has died of hydrophobia forty years after having been bitten by a mad dog. It appears that he was severely bitten by a mad dog, which had no apparent effect on him until within the past four weeks, when he first seemed to act strangely. For a few days he appeared melancholy, and on Monday, after telling his son he was going to do something, threw off his hat and coat, ran to a pond nearby and, jumping in, endeavored to drown himself. His son followed and succeeded in getting him out and induced him to return to the house, when within a short distance he tore himself away, returned again and threw himself into the pond. By this time some of the neighbors who had witnessed the strange proceedings arrived, and with their assistance he was secured and brought home. The paroxysm lasted about five hours, when he became rational and requested the bystanders not to allow him to hurt anyone. He remained in this condition for eighteen hours, when another spasm succeeded, and after suffering terribly until Friday night, death came to his relief.”
Many erroneous theories about rabies were published in newspapers. In 1869 several doctors expressed their belief that the bite of an angry dog is just as deadly as that of a dog infected with the rabies virus. And another writer, in 1879, suggested that if men were in the habit of biting, they would be as dangerous as mad dogs, and then he came to this puzzling conclusion: “If man is capable of rabies and of conveying it by a bite, it would appear to be a new argument in favor of evolution.”
Over the years there has been considerable advice offered about preventing and curing this dreaded disease, most of it useless.
“We conceive it to be the duty of everyone who has in his possession a valuable secret,” wrote a correspondent in 1831, “to let the world have the benefit of it in some way or other.
“I have looked for the minutes I took several years ago of information given me by Dr. Benaiah Sanborn, an aged and respectable physician, respecting his treatment of hydrophobia, and his success.
“The principal remedy was a strong decoction of Lobelia, given in frequent doses, till it operated as an emetic.
“When first called to the patient, he administered immediately, while the lobelia was preparing, a powder, composed for an adult, of one grain of camphor, one of opium, two of digitalis, finely pulverized and given in molasses. Half that quantity he would give the smallest child.
“In a case in which the disease was considerably advanced, he gave the powder once in thirty minutes, three times, and afterward once in four hours.
“Dr. Sanborn made the experiment with lobelia on swine. The swine of four families were bitten by a mad dog. The lobelia was given soon to the swine of three of the families and not of the other. The animals to whom it was given all lived, and the others all died of hydrophobia.
“Dr. Sanborn was called to visit a boy about nine years old, who had been bitten by a mad dog. It was the eleventh day of his disease. He had become very wild and could not drink. It was necessary to confine him and to pry his mouth in order to give the medicine. What was first forced in his mouth was thrown out at his mouth and nose. Continual efforts were made, with success. In about three hours he was able to sit at the table and take tea with the family comfortably.
“Dr. Sanborn was called to visit Mr. Noah Newell, who was cured of hydrophobia by the same method of treatment.”
An 1869 exchange gives the following “sure cure” for hydrophobia: “The bite must be bathed as soon as possible with warm vinegar and water, and when this has dried, a few drops of muriatic [now called hydrochloric] acid poured upon the wound will destroy the poison of the saliva and relieve the patient from all present and future danger.”
Another in 1873 says: “To prevent hydrophobia, procure one and a half ounces of good sound Elecampane Root, bruise well, put into one pint of new milk, boil down to half pint, strain when cold, take at one dose, fasting at least six hours afterwards. The next morning repeat the dose, using two ounces of the root. On the third morning take another dose prepared as the last, and that will be sufficient to be taken in the morning.”
Between 1871 and 1873, Professor Nathan R. Smith of Baltimore offered advice about rabies and its treatment that remains useful today. Several letters addressed to the editor of The (Baltimore) Sun were widely reprinted throughout the nation. This is some of what he had to say on the subject:
“A slight scratch from the dog’s tooth is more dangerous than a deeper wound because less blood flows to wash away the poison. The part should be instantly washed with soap and water, and when dry should be thoroughly touched with caustic potash by a physician, if possible. The milder caustics, such as lunar caustics, are worthless.
“I have witnessed many deaths from this disease, in not one of which was the caustic used. In all cases the patient said the scratch was so slight that they did not mind it – the very reason that they should have minded it. In all these cases, life would have been saved had the means been promptly employed.
“Another error is always killing the dog that bites. He should be carefully shut up. If he remains well, he had not the hydrophobia, but apply the caustic at any rate at once.”
In July 1885, Louis Pasteur successfully treated a peasant boy who had been bitten by a rabid wolf. Since then, Pasteur’s vaccine has become the routine treatment for rabies, but the news of his discovery and the availability of vaccine did not spread quickly to everyone in the medical profession.
On April 7, 1888, a newspaper published the following report from the Philadelphia Medical and Surgical Record. While the first paragraph reflects sound advice, one can only scratch one’s head over the second.
“We warn our readers that they need never expect to cure a patient supposed to have hydrophobia, if they watch him very closely, expose him at a public clinic, offer him water, inject morphine and chloral into him, and, above all, if they add the administration of curare to these measures. A careful study of the literature of hydrophobia shows that morphine, chloral and curare – drugs recommended in most of the books – are useless and probably dangerous.
“Let our readers take note that hydrophobia does not seem able to bear the face of skepticism; that it disappears where it is not talked about; that it flourishes where it is cultivated, as in France, and does not exist among savages and unenlightened people. And let them sift carefully any case which seems like hydrophobia, as to its history and symptoms; let them eschew violence of act or of medication in treating it, and see what the result will be.”
You can reach Hal Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org.