Boiling water and birch twigs

Sensibility of persons suffering asphyxiaIn 1843 a Dr T.O. Ward wrote to the London Medical Gazette on the subject of pain. A previous correspondent had suggested that victims of asphyxiation felt nothing and were insensible to pain.  Dr Ward begged to differ, drawing on his own childhood as evidence:

When a boy, I was very fond of making boyish experiments on my powers of endurance, such as staring at the sun, having two horns blowing at once in my ears, lifting weights, &c.: and one night, having found no ill effects from pinching my windpipe between my finger and thumb, I dared another boy to strangle me with his handkerchief.

From which one gathers that the young Dr Ward had an unusual idea of fun.

He complied with my bravado, but the moment he had tied the handkerchief tight I fell backwards, striking my head against the bed-post in the fall. How long I lay I could not tell, but I perfectly well remember feeling an acute pain from the blow, and a tingling sensation about my neck from the boy’s attempts to untie the knot. I also recollect that the lady of the house coming into the room at the moment the knot was loosed, and asking what was the matter. I rose instantly, saying “Nothing, m’am;” replying so quickly to her inquiry that she had no idea of the cause that had prostrated me.

But that’s not all. Dr Ward believes that this insight – that people apparently unconscious may still experience pain – has useful therapeutic applications. He expands on this claim:

On Good Friday, 1840, a very bleak day, I was called into a cottage to see a child that had just been taken out of a mill-stream, in which it had been partly immersed and partly floating for some minutes. I found it cold, insensible, swollen, and moaning at each breath, which was drawn at long intervals. I immediately ordered it to be put into a tub of hot water, before the fire; but the tub was so small that the women were obliged to pour and dash the water over the body while others rubbed it. Finding this of no use, but that the pulse became almost imperceptible, the belly more tumid, and the body colder, I had the child removed from the bath, wrapped in hot blankets, and well rubbed. This produced amendment for a moment only, when seeing a birch rod hanging up, I took a few twigs, and began to whip the child. Instantly the limbs contracted from the pain, the cry was more distinct, the pulse rose, the belly subsided, and warmth was restored.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the treatment of drowning victims was one of the overwhelming concerns of the medical profession. The use of friction (rubbing the body vigorously) was one of the main techniques used, but others were stranger. They included electric shocks and blowing tobacco smoke up the rectum. The latter technique was largely abandoned by this date, but other odd treatments persisted. Whipping with birch twigs is, however, new to me.

The frictions were now resumed, and a little hot brandy and water was given, but with slight effect; for the body again became cold, the pulse fell, the abdomen swelled, and life seemed fast ebbing away, when I again had recourse to the scourging, with the same effect as before.

Scourging, of course, meaning the whipping.

Now, in addition to the frictions over the chest, abdomen and limbs, I applied a mustard plaster to the spine, and gave more brandy and water, but all in vain: I was continually obliged to return to the use of the rod.

None of these techniques, strangely, has survived to the present day.

Presently the parish surgeon came, and we agreed, while waiting for a galvanic machine for which I had sent…

A ‘galvanic machine’ being an electrical apparatus with which the doctor intended to provide shocks to stimulate the child.

…to apply boiling water in a bladder to the chest, mustard baths to the feet, and ammonia, which he had brought with him, to the nose.

All of which sounds most unwise.

The effect of the boiling water was dreadful to witness.

You don’t say.

The poor child instantly opened its eyes with a horrid stare, which it continued as long as the application lasted, uttering wailing cries at the same time, and becoming much more roused than before; but when we had removed the hot water, the unfavourable symptoms returned even worse than previously, and we could not recur to this remedy for fear of the consequences. Soon afterwards the galvanic apparatus arrived, and shocks and currents, gradually increased in power, were passed through the chest and diaphragm, but without more permanent effect than any other of the remedies used, except the scourging, which 1 had continued to apply at intervals all along. I now trusted to this and to the rubbing alone; and in about two hours from my first seeing the child, I had the satisfaction of putting it into bed to its mother (whom I had directed to go to bed, for the purpose of keeping it warm), with every prospect of its speedy complete recovery.

Despite this brutal treatment, the unfortunate infant seems to have recovered.

When I saw it the next morning, 1 could not recognize, in the delicate child before me, the turgid features of the day before; and, what is rather remarkable, the only mark of the boiling water was a slight roughness of the cuticle of the chest; nor was the skin marked with weals from the use of the rod. I attribute the long duration of the asphyxia to a bronchial affection under which the child labored at the time of the accident, but which was a little aggravated by it.

The doctor concludes with a rather strange pet theory of his: that in cases of drowning the intestinal gases are ‘exhaled and reabsorbed’. He illustrates this with – what else? – a half-remembered anecdote:

A late traveller in Norway, whose name I forget, asserts that the Norwegians, in their journeys over the half frozen rivers… release their horses when they fall through holes in the ice, by throwing a noose over their necks, which they pull tight, till the horse, beginning to be strangled, has its abdomen so much swelled with gas as to float on its back, and is thus easily drawn out of the water over the edge of the ice.

 Now that I’d like to see.

3 thoughts on “Boiling water and birch twigs”

  1. These people were breathing, if only barely, when they felt pain. Asphyxiation is not the word I would use. I’m not sure what word I would use, actually! 🙂
    I have been strangled before, I don’t want to go into detail about that, but I have. I’m not sure how long I was “out,” but I wasn’t aware of anything until I awoke. “Awoke” is definitely the correct term, though, because that’s exactly what it was like. I had no idea what was happening during, and it took a few seconds for me to realize what had happened. It took even longer for me to feel the pain that had been inflicted.

  2. And I was drowned–near drowned I am forced to say– to unconsciousness. I know nothing of the interval during which I was insensible. I am informed I made no sound until revived.

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