During this past week’s celebration of the one-year anniversary of the release of Becoming Lady Washington, I read an excerpt from the book dealing with the many treatments they tried and which failed to help Martha’s daughter with epilepsy fits. It brought to mind just how far the world of medicine has come over the last 250+ years.
I am not a medicine historian by any means but I have read a good bit about how people tried to fight off diseases in the 18th century. Here’s the excerpt I read on Wednesday, with the various kinds of treatment mentioned in bold italics:
Mount Vernon – 1768
One afternoon in September, George searched me out, finding me in the hall where I sewed in the brighter light the area afforded to my work. I set aside the stitching to attend to what he was about to convey. I braced myself when I noted his serious expression. “What is it?”
“I need to speak with you.” George placed a chair nearby and sank onto its wood seat. “I’ll be leaving in the morning to attend the assembly, but I shouldn’t be gone but a month or two. Did you wish to accompany me?”
Oh, how I’d adore to travel with him to Williamsburg, as it would give me the opportunity to visit with my mother and kinfolk. But not with Patsy ill so frequently. My heart simply was not interested in the gaiety of the balls and dinners and the whirl of society in the colony’s capitol.
Dr. Rumney was a necessary but not entirely wanted guest. Each time I sent for him, desperate to find a solution to my daughter’s increasing fits, I prayed for strength and peace. Allowing myself to lose my composure would not help any one. Better to keep calm and seek out ways to comfort and encourage my daughter.
I smiled at George, a small rueful grin as I shook my head. “I desire nothing more than to be at your side, but I cannot leave. I do not trust any one else to attend our daughter. She’s not up to traveling, either. The journey and upset might undo any strides Dr. Rumney has made.” George’s eyes held a wealth of compassion and concern, but I wouldn’t stand between him and his obligations. I could handle the household in his absence. More importantly, I trusted he’d come home if I needed him. “Go and do what you have to. Only do not stay away a moment longer than your business requires. I will be anxious for your return.”
George enclosed my hand in his. “I give you my promise to return as soon as possible.”
Two months passed while I did my utmost to remain positive. But Patsy continued to need the doctor’s ministrations. I kept one eye on her and one on the door, waiting for George’s return. He wrote to me weekly, sharing the gossip and that he’d been asked to lead the Virginia Militia. My pride for his stellar reputation and the resulting trust placed in his hands bolstered my flagging energy. I’d do nothing to give him cause to be less proud of me than I was of him. When George trotted his stallion up the lane in November, Billy at his side like an appendage, I met him at the door to guide him to where Dr. Rumney yet again administered nervous drops and musk to Patsy.
I caught a sharp appraising glance from George, but didn’t give him chance to comment on my admittedly haggard appearance. I’d attempted to correct the ravages of months of worry, but apparently had not succeeded. A fact unsurprising when I considered the keen judgment he possessed. Whether appraising the conformation of a horse or determining the trustworthiness of a servant, he missed nothing. Hurrying him to Patsy’s room, I trusted speed would blur the edges enough to avoid further commentary. No matter what else, at least George returned home to help me shoulder the burden of worry.
“How long has the doctor been here?” George asked quietly, his voice rumbling in the passage.
“This time? An hour or so.” I kept my voice low as we turned the corner.
“I know you’re worried, as am I. We will do all we can, Patsy.” George pulled me to a halt outside the closed chamber door and embraced me, a lazy bear hug that stole my breath for a few moments. Blissful moments snug within the protection of his arms. He eased me away from him and pecked a kiss to my lips. “How frequently has Dr. Rumney been summoned?”
“Weekly.” I clung to his hands, needing their strength and stability, and craned my neck back so I could search his expression. “He continues to use purges and bleedings. Ointments and drugs of various kinds. But it’s all guessing. He told me they do not know what causes these terrifying visitations on a person’s body.” A sigh clawed its way from me. “It’s a terrible thing, to watch your child suffer and be unable to alleviate or remove the cause.”
The last fit had been the worst I’d ever seen, and the absolute hardest event to witness. She’d started to shake uncontrollably, biting her tongue until it bled, and then dropped unconscious. I had eased her to the floor with a bump. She’d slept in my arms for nearly ten minutes before she roused. Ten long, agonizing minutes of staring at her closed eyes and willing for her to be well. I’d sent for the doctor posthaste. I shuddered at the memory. We must find an answer.
“Let’s see what he has to say today.” George opened the door and ushered me inside the sunny room.
Patsy sat in a chair by the window, dark eyes in a pale face, lips brushed with pink, brunette curls hidden under a kerchief, a colorful lap blanket warming her legs. Dr. Rumney turned from where he’d been stirring yet another dosage of nervous drops into warmed sherry. Not that it had worked previously. Surely something would cure her ailment. The tension coiled inside of me would take a miracle to release. A miracle for Patsy.
“Welcome home, Colonel.” Dr. Rumney tapped the spoon on the edge of the glass and laid it on the table. “I do believe we may be making a bit of progress in managing your daughter’s symptoms.”
George strode forward and shook the doctor’s hand. “That’s good to hear, doctor. We’re naturally very concerned about the increased frequency of the attacks.”
“It’s not my fault, Father.” Patsy frowned slightly. “I try to stop them but I cannot.”
“We know it’s outside of your control, dear.” George glanced from Patsy to me and then the doctor. “We’ll keep looking for a way, anything with any hope of success will be tried. Understood, Dr. Rumney?”
“Of course.” Dr. Rumney hurried across the room and handed Patsy the glass. “Drink this and let’s hope it will help abate the events, or at least lengthen the time between them so you can play the spinet again.”
I clasped my cold hands in front of me. After the years of increasing frequency and violence in her spasms, of doctor visits, and a slew of treatments, what more could we try? “Perhaps if we took her to take of the waters at Warm Springs?”
Dr. Rumney put various tools and bottles back into his bag and snapped it closed before addressing me. “I’ve never heard of any one recovering from the falling sickness by doing so, but if it comes down to it, we might try that as a last resort. In the meanspace, continue giving our lovely patient sips of the musk twice a day as prescribed. If you have any further concerns, send for me.”
“Thank you, doctor. I’ll walk you out.” George ushered the doctor from the room, casting a last glance back at me with an encouraging smile.
“Mama, please don’t be sad.” Patsy reached out a hand, wiggling her fingers until I wrapped them with my own. “Would you like for me to play your favorite song?”
I lifted her hand to press a kiss to the fingers. The same fingers that had reluctantly pressed the ivory keys for years. “Yes, I would like that very much.”
The treatments included in this passage were not the only ones they tried. In fact in Patricia Brady’s excellent biography Martha Washington: An American Life, she states:
“Epilepsy was untreatable by any medical knowledge of the day. The Washingtons spent much time and money consulting a variety of doctors (at least eight of them over the years), trying changes in lifestyle, mountains of medicines, and treatment with ‘simples,’ that is, herbal remedies. Dr. William Rumney, an Englishman in practice in Alexandria, treated Patsy regularly for five years, coming down to Mount Vernon every few weeks to examine his patient and bring capsules, powders, pills, and decoctions. Throughout her ordeal, antispasmodics such as valerian and musk were the primary medicines prescribed—to no avail. At one point, poisonous but often used mercury and severe purging were ordered, Martha nursing and watching her daughter throughout. Another time, a blacksmith came and put an iron ring on Patsy’s finger, based on an English folk belief that such rings prevented seizures. Later, they spent a month at Warm Springs, hoping the waters might be beneficial.”
During the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia later in the century, 1793, they resorted to firing guns in the air and lighting fires in the streets along with wearing amulets around their necks to ward off the evil disease. Lots of folk medicine ideas were based on fear and hope not science.
One last reminder. Just for a few more days, both in honor of Memorial Day and Martha’s 290th birthday on June 2, I’ve discounted the ebook of Becoming Lady Washington: A Novel from its regular $4.99 to $2.99 (I would have made it $2.90 if I could have!). This is a limited time sale so get your copy today!
Thanks for reading! I hope you have a wonderful summer of reading and relaxing ahead.
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.