Archive for the ‘Diseases & Epidemics’ category

Health for a Shilling

November 21, 2012

Medications that are now used with great caution, if at all, were common place in the Victorian age. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, described as an indispensable aid to quiet crying or teething babies, had morphine as a major ingredient. Opium, regarded as an all-purpose drug, was widely used to control coughing and diarrhea. One company sold heroin tablets to relieve asthma symptoms. Cocaine was used in drops for toothache, one company promoted cocaine throat lozenges as “indispensable for singers, teachers and orators”, and dentists and surgeons used it as an anesthetic.

While these were legitimate drugs in medical practices of the late 1800s, a whole range of patent medicines also flourished during that period. People bought them from traveling medicine shows, and they were advertised in newspapers and magazines. The golden age of patent medicines ended in the early 1900s, when new legislation prohibited the misbranding of foods and drugs, as well as false advertising. Also, as legitimate medicine evolved, new cures replaced the old. Opium and other addictive drugs fell by the wayside once scientists realized their pitfalls, and novocain replaced its predecessor, cocaine, as an anesthetic.

Advertisements from the British Colonist of October 7, 1862, the day RCH opened, included ones for Holloway’s Pills, Brown’s Bronchial Troches, Dr. Jayne’s Sanative Pills, and Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, standard remedies that most New Westminster families would have had on their shelves.

Ads for Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters were often targeted specifically to local conditions. During the Civil War, they were sold to soldiers as “a positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous.” In BC, the ad described the medicine as “a preventive of various dangerous diseases to which the gold seeker is liable”. The original formula was about 47% alcohol – 94 Proof! The amount of alcohol was so high that it was served in Alaskan saloons by the glass. Hostetter sweetened the alcohol with sugar to which he added a few aromatic oils (anise, coriander, etc.) and vegetable bitters (cinchona, gentian, etc.) to give it a medicinal flavour.

Ad for Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters

Dr. Jayne’s Sanative Pills, on the other hand, would speedily remove “bilious affections”, and were “invaluable to the miner as they may be taken without necessitating a discontinuance from work, even though the latter should be in the winter”.

Ad for Dr. Jayne’s Sanative Pills

Feeling a little hoarse? Brown’s Bronchial Troches were just the thing. The ad quoted a clergyman from Morristown Ohio, “Last spring I feared my lungs were becoming dangerously involved, and until I used your Troches could not preach a sermon of ordinary length without hoarseness, but now, with the assistance of the Troches, I have in the past five weeks preached some forty sermons.”

Ad for Brown’s Bronchial Troches

But the most popular patent medicine of that time was Holloway’s pills. Under the title, “Health for a Shilling”, their ad claimed that they would cure an astonishing number of diseases and conditions from coughs, colds and asthma, to dysentery, gout, tumours and “weakness from whatever cause”. Analysis of the pills showed that they contained aloe, myrrh and saffron, which while probably not harmful, would be unlikely to have the claimed effect.

Holloways Ointment and Pills


Isolated But Not Alone

October 17, 2012

The process of isolating patients with communicable diseases has varied widely over the years at Royal Columbian Hospital. In 1862 even before the original Royal Columbian Hospital was finished, the Board of Managers had to build a small separate building to house a couple of smallpox patients. There were, at different times, a number of separate isolation hospitals in different parts of the city such as Poplar Island and the area at 8th Street and 8th Avenue near the Douglas Road cemetery. They dealt primarily with smallpox, but patients with any communicable disease could have been cared for there.

In 1908 three isolation cottages were added to the 1889 hospital building for patients with infectious diseases, including scarlet fever and tuberculosis. The 1912 hospital has an isolation ward as part of the main hospital rather than having a separate building for that purpose. However, by 1940 there was no isolation ward at all at RCH and patients had to be sent to Vancouver due to the lack of facilities in New Westminster. Ald. W. Cook lobbied in November 1940 for the Dominion government to contribute toward an isolation ward at least for the army cases in the military wing.

In 1943, the scarlet fever isolation building was renovated and brought back into service. The interior of the building was redecorated, the electric wiring system overhauled, the exterior painted and extra fire escapes added. By the 1960s, there was an isolation ward on the ground floor toward the rear of the old 1912 section of the hospital.

In 1964 an 18-year old young man suffering an infectious disease was admitted to that isolation ward. Thinking back to that time, he now has only vague impressions of the admission process, or the ward outside his room. During the first 24 hours, he was too ill to pay much attention to what was happening, but as he began to feel better, he wondered what was happening outside his room in the general ward. He could hear muffled voices, a child crying, the rattle of equipment, but not much else. Finally the day came that the nurses told him that he had visitors. Some school chums had come to see him, but visiting a patient in isolation wasn’t like seeing any other patient. The patient sat in his room in front of the open window, while his friends or family sat or stood outside on the other side of a wire fence. This way they could see and hear each other without any possibility of transmission of the disease. The system worked well during the summer months, but when it was rainy or cold and snowy it had some pretty obvious problems.

Visiting patients in the isolation ward of Royal Columbian hospital can be an uncomfortable ordeal. To prevent contact with patients with infectious or contagious diseases, visitors are kept outside the building and away from the windows by a wire fence. Among new facilities included in current plans for expansion of the hospital is a new isolation ward with an indoor visiting room. Source: The Columbian Oct 29, 1964

Today, technology makes everything different. Patients in isolation now can still be in constant touch with the outside world via TV, internet, email, etc. – things we all take for granted. But back in 1964, it was an exciting step in his recovery when our 18-year-old patient was told he could have his transistor radio brought in as long as it was in a plastic case that could be properly cleaned, and not a leather case. The disposable earphones provided by the hospital weren’t as good as his own, but now he could listen to the hit parade, his favourite programs, and the news and begin to feel once more part of the world outside the hospital walls. Anything else (books, paper, pens etc.) that was brought in for him had to be destroyed when he was discharged so that there was no chance of “taking the disease out” with him when he returned home.

Today there are isolation beds right in the middle of intensive care wards – the barrier now being differences in air pressure rather than solid walls and wire fences, but the concept remains the same. Give the best care possible to the ill patient, while protecting the general population from whatever has caused the disease.

Air Ambulance in the Park & A Cemetery Tour

August 8, 2012

Our June 28 post, “From Buckboard to Sikorsky” mentioned that, before the current heliport at Royal Columbian Hospital was built in 2002, they had to use Sapperton Park, across the street from the hospital, as an emergency landing area. When a patient was brought to RCH Emergency by helicopter, the police had to close East Columbia Street and clear the park in order for the helicopter to land safely. The patient was then wheeled across the street to the emergency ward and eventually, after the helicopter had departed, traffic and park activities returned to normal. These two photos were taken by Dianne London in 1989 at Sapperton Park, New Westminster, when the helicopter had just brought in a patient for RCH. Our thanks to Gerry and Dianne London for allowing us to use these images.

Air ambulance landing in Sapperton Park, across the street from Royal Columbian Hospital in 1989. Photo by Dianne London

Air ambulance in Sapperton Park 1989. Photo by Dianne London

The first of two cemetery tours focussing on the 150 year anniversary of Royal Columbian Hospital will take place on Sunday, August 12, 2012, from 3 to 5 pm. This tour will explore a series of interesting, intriguing, or curious stories that involve RCH and individuals buried in St. Peter’s and Fraser cemeteries in New Westminster. Several of these stories have been told in this blog, though there will be much more detail given on the tour as well as the opportunity to ask questions or add comments. There will also be many other stories that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a blog!

Among others on the tour will be the grave and story of Lillian McAllister, a well loved nurse who died on duty and after whom the nursing home was named in 1935, and Dr. A.W.S. Black who served in the Crimean War in Florence Nightingale’s hospital, and when he died in 1870, left the town with no medical doctor. We will also visit the grave of David Robson.

Grave marker for David Robson in Fraser Cemetery. The Women’s Hospital was in the Robson house

The Women’s Hospital, that was incorporated with RCH in 1901, was located in Mr. & Mrs. Robson’s house on 3rd Avenue in New Westminster.

Ethel Cunningham’s family was involved in almost every aspect of the community, including the Women’s Hospital and Royal Columbian. You’ll hear about how James Cunningham, Ethel’s uncle and one of the wealthiest citizens in the community, had planned to move to Vancouver but decided to stay and help rebuild the Royal City after the disastrous Great Fire of 1898.

A portion of Fraser Cemetery with the Cunningham market in the foreground.

Another familiar name to blog readers is Dr. A.L. McQuarrie. He was the “detective” who solved the mystery of the source of the killer scarlet fever epidemic in 1913. See that story in the June 6th post.

If you are in the area on Sunday, join us for the tour. You’ll “meet” some of the people you’ve come to know through this blog and many others involved with RCH who have curious and intriguing stories to tell. One of those is a family who lost their home and their business in the Great Fire, but suffered an even greater loss 12 days later when their daughter died of a disease that is very much a concern in BC today. Find out how they dealt with the devastation and, while deeply mourning her death, increased their drive to rebuild and constructed a two-storey hotel with accommodation for at least 75 guests to replace their old one – in less than 14 days!

There is no need to register – just come to the cemetery office at 100 Richmond Street in Sapperton, New Westminster for a 3 pm start. Don’t forget your hat, sunscreen and walking shoes!

Tracking the source of a killer epidemic

June 6, 2012

Nurse Marjorie Cunningham, posed in front of the Scarlet Fever Isolation Ward at the Royal Columbian Hospital. The scarlet fever isolation ward was converted to a T.B. isolation ward c.1927.

Today we know that scarlet fever is caused by a bacterium known as Group A Streptococcus. Treatment is very straightforward – fluids, rest and antibiotics – the same ones used to treat strep throat, and people who have scarlet fever are considered contagious only until they have had at least 24 hours of antibiotic treatment.

But in the 1800s, scarlet fever was among the most common of a long list of diseases that caused rash and fever in children. Unfortunately, it was often severe and in the 19th century, it was a leading cause of death among children in America. Streptococcal bacteria were identified in the 1870s, but it was not until the early 20th century that they were effectively identified in routine cultures.

In 1913, a 7-year girl named Gladys-May lived with her family on Sherbrooke Street in New Westminster, just a block from the Royal Columbian Hospital. On Monday, January 6th, in her usual good health, she went to school at nearby Richard McBride Elementary, but the next day she developed a fever and within 24 hours, she was dead.

Two days later, the local paper reported 25 cases of scarlet fever centered around Sherbrooke Street, and there were concerns that they might have to close the schools. A week later on January 14, with the epidemic continuing to grow, a second death occurred. This time it was a 24-year old man who died at RCH of the disease. Most victims of scarlet fever were children, but this young man had had previous bouts of quinsy, a condition affecting the tonsils, making him susceptible to scarlet fever.

In spite of the children with the disease being quarantined in their homes, the epidemic continued to grow – still centered on a small two or three block area of Sapperton. With over 50 cases now, orders were given to close Sunday Schools and churches and to cancel all public meetings.

Dr. A.L. McQuarrie, while treating the victims of the disease as best he could, also took on the challenge of tracking down the source – clearly there was something more than person-to-person contact at work. Within a few days he had the mystery solved – one particular supplier of milk. In Dr. McQuarrie’s words, “the milk supply was at the root of the present epidemic and literally cans of scarlet fever were delivered to New Westminster customers”. Once he knew that, and had the infected supply stopped, it was just a matter of time for the disease to run its course. The paper said, “the epidemic which for a time proved so threatening in Sapperton is now dying a natural death”.

Milk-borne scarlet fever was known in the late 1800s, but it was not quickly obvious in this case because the disease followed the route of one milk delivery wagon, and that took some detective work to identify.

%d bloggers like this: