Recently I worked on digitising a small number of volumes of The Veterinary Journal from the late 19th century and late 20th century. Almost 100 years apart, the earlier volumes from 1889-1898 had some questionable advice and cures for ailments including the free use of toxic chemicals and even a few drams of whisky for a horse’s stomach ache! We view these archaic methods nowadays with humour – after all, some absurdities are expected from a late Victorian medical journal.
The first journal I scanned was compiled in 1889, and there was a brief article about the use of Chloroform as an anaesthetic for horses during surgery, and although the author is “aware that some authorities rather discourage the administration of chloroform, on the ground that it frightens the horse more than the operation does” he noted that “if small doses are administered with very little air the results are much more satisfactory, particularly if Carlisle’s chloroform-bag is used. Of this apparatus I wish to speak in terms of great praise, and would strongly recommend it to chloroformists.”
This short report may have been slightly controversial, as research had been done as early as forty years prior about the dangers of chloroform as an anaesthetic, for both humans and animals, and the first human death due to chloroform poisoning was in 1848, although several professional institutions denied for many years that there was a correlation between the two.
There was an increasing number of human deaths relating to the medical use of chloroform in the 1800s, even when John Snow’s purpose built inhaler was used, often due to incorrect adjustment of the absorbent paper and unregulated dosages. Shock or fright also added to the likelihood of death as the heart and lungs were already in a fragile state, and ironically those who were otherwise healthy and in a physically fit state needed a dangerously high amount to reach the same state as frail patients.
Snow used animals as test subjects and when he found that the other popular anaesthetic Ether did not produce paralysis of the heart, he nevertheless continued to use chloroform. When asked why, he said “An occasional risk never stands in the way of ready applicability.” It must also be noted that in 1824 Henry Hill Hickman discovered that he could use carbon dioxide as a painless anaesthetic in animals, but unfortunately this wasn’t well documented at the time. Perhaps the author of the article in The Veterinary Journal held the same beliefs as Snow and was set in his ways.
(‘Note on Chloroform’ by F. Raymond, F.R.C.V.S., F.R.M.S., E.T.C, Army Veterinary Department, The Veterinary Journal: Volume 28, 1889)
Another odd article found in the Notes and News section in Volume 46 (1898) was ‘The Value of Hydrochloric Acid in Sciatica Discovered by Accident’. This article describes a man who suffered for many years from sciatica who was undergoing treatment of hypodermic injections of salt and water, but found it ineffective. He felt a stronger salt content would be more successful, so he procured some “spirit of salt” (hydrochloric acid) and painted it on his skin in the affected areas. He was miraculously cured of his pains in only a few days, and told doctors who were interested in trialling this treatment with their patients. “The procedure is simple enough,” the article promises, “Half an ounce of strong hydrochloric acid is put in a small cup and a brush is dipped in it and applied over the painful part of the nerve, three or four coats being painted on. The limb is then developed in a cotton-wool dressing. Of course, the application causes a somewhat severe smarting sensation, but this is quite bearable. A few minutes afterwards the skin becomes reddened and hot, and sometimes bullae are formed which fill with fluid. These, even if they occur, disappear in two or three days. Usually the patient feels better even after a single sitting. The application can be repeated in from twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but not again for several days, for fear of producing sloughs. Of course, too, where there are bullae they must be avoided in subsequent applications.”
The article was overwhelmingly positive with doctors reporting many happy and cured patients. No mention of other health hazards (apart from the burns on the skin’s surface) such as inflammation and ulceration of the respiratory tract, chest pain and pulmonary edema from acute inhalation of hydrochloric acid. Due to limited medical knowledge of chemical toxicity at the time, only autopsies could reveal underlying internal health problems, some caused by the apparent cures.
Lastly, I came across a brief but thought provoking article that is very relevant in today’s climate of awareness for animal welfare, titled ‘Is the Flesh of Tortured Animals Poisonous as Food?’. The opening statement recalls that this is not a new concept; “The idea has been recently started, or rather revived – for it is somewhat ancient – that the flesh of tortured animals may be pernicious as food; and as it has received the support of medical men […] Whether it really does so is a question we cannot pretend to answer, but the popular notion […] [is] that some change does occur in the tissues under the influence of pain or distress.”
More than ever before vegetarianism and veganism is becoming popular as more awareness is spread about animal cruelty and the factory farming industry, and people are making choices that are more emotionally charged when it comes to food and the environment. This article from 1889 doesn’t offer much scientific analysis or any conclusive proof, apart from an anecdotal excerpt; “A medical man at Lancaster lends his countenance to the poisonous character of what he designates “tortured meat,” and he evidently believes that there is danger in its consumption. A toxic product is developed in the flesh of tortured animals, he asserts, one of the class of peculiar bodies known as “ptomaines,” some of which are not destroyed at the temperature of cooking, and which, he contends, are undoubtedly produced under conditions of great pain and distress.”
It was a surprising subject to come across, especially in a volume so old, but clearly showing an awareness for the welfare of animals among veterinary professionals, and those looking closely at the structure of an animal on a scientific basis. Awareness of chemicals that were entering our bodies was evidently a viable research venture in the 1800s. In stark contrast, the journals from the late 1980s are much closer to today’s medical standards and following much stricter procedures and regulations.
Who knows what new discoveries veterinary journals of 2080 may hold!