Sunday, August 7, 2011

Civil War Drugs

When the Confederates had trouble maintaining their pharmaceutical manufacturing, they relied on medicines found in their abundant fields and forests. Southern doctors brewed home remedies of herbs and teas, and sometimes a mixture called “old indig” was substituted for quinine. Dogwood, willow and yellow poplar barks were mashed and used in treatment.

Liquor was a common medication, frequently in the form of whiskey or apple brandy. These preparations were esteemed in the treatment of the prevalent malaria.

Painkillers included opium and “blue mass”. Opium would relieve pain, but “blue mass”, a clay-like compound of mercury and chalk, could lead to serious disfigurement and death.

Calomel, or mercurous chloride was the basis for many Civil War treatments including blue mass and “blue pills”. President Lincoln used blue mass pills to treat his chronic constipation. The daily recommended dose of these pills contained over 9,000 times the amount of mercury considered safe by today’s standards.

Calomel was dispensed to those with diarrhea, dystentery and typhoid fever, and many patients suffered from mercury poisoning. Writer Louisa May Alcott, who served as a Union nurse, almost died from mercury toxicity after being treated for typhoid.

Medical supplies were scarce, but even the most basic requirement—food—was often in short supply. No war can be fought effectively with starving soldiers.


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