October 1990

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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Surviving Illness

Illness was not a stranger to me as I grew through years six to twelve. Beside the normal childhood diseases, I suffered severe pain from earaches, leg pains, and the "Grippe."

The home remedy for earache was Dad's blowing warm tobacco smoke from his pipe bowl through the stem inserted into my ear, or hot oil of Balm-of-Gilead dropped into the offending ear. The oil was extracted from a tree that stood in neighbor Will Simmons's yard. My chronic ear problem, finally diagnosed as an abscessed ear drum, left me with some permanent hearing loss in my right ear.

The leg pains that plagued my springtime nights were called "Growing Pains,"—no known remedy— could it have been rickets? Fruit and fresh vegetables were scarce from March to July with supplies stored in the cellar exhausted.

Infantile Paralysis (Polio), Scarlet Fever, and Tuberculosis were still the dreaded killers of the youth. Tuberculosis struck all ages. It is difficult to convey to anyone who did not grow up close to those times, the despair people felt upon learning that they had contracted tuberculosis. If they had a job, they were told to quit; if they were kids, schools told them not to come back; if they were stay-at-home housewives, they along with all victims, were told that they should not stir if they could stay put, not stand if they could sit or if they could lie down, and not to lie down without trying to sleep. Sleep was the thing. Doctors called it a rest cure.

Since the development of streptomycin in 1944, the disease is now easily treated and cured. Before that, one popular treatment was to keep the patient in a cold room or on an outdoor porch. This sometimes led to my being given the cold-room treatment for my periodical bouts with the "Grippe."

We had moved back to the Dillistin farmhouse when the illness became serious enough to put me in the "old north room," upstairs in the unheated northeast corner of the house.

A doctor coming from Dundee had to travel the last mile to our place over a dirt road that was often impassable to autos during winter and spring. And of course there would be a three dollar fee for his call. Illness or injury had to be pretty threatening before one was called.

My illness worsened, and Doc MacDowell was summoned. He arrived blustering and profane as always, examined me, and thumped back downstairs to report in his normal loud voice: "Goddamit George, I dun-no—the fever is pretty high—you'd better give him this medicine and I'd put some damn heat up there if I were you—now, if he's here in the morning he should make it all right, and I'll come back early tomorrow." I heard every word, and was solaced by the knowledge that now I would really be the center of attention, and would not have to take any more turpentine and honey for my croup-like cough. Up came the old upright kerosene heater with its little isinglass window that showed the orange flame burning from a circular wick. It was unvented and the room soon filled with the smell of burning kerosene. Antibiotics were unknown and recovery was slow.

Aunt Lizzie and Health Care

Born in 1876, Aunt Lizzie Spears, my father's sister, was in poor health for most of her ninety years, and she relied on chiropractic adjustments to treat all her health problems. When I was about seven or eight, she decided that I had symptoms of consumption (tuberculosis), and talked my parents into letting her take me to her home in Rochester for a two or three week session of treatments by her current chiropractor. I didn't really appreciate her generosity, and dreaded every session of the spine springing and body twisting, but she confidently ignored my protests. For the rest of her life she took pride in the success of her efforts, and upon meeting me she would always say in her best dramatic, hushed voice, "Edwin, I do not believe you would be alive today if I hadn't taken you to Rochester that time."

Dad often cautioned his four boys to treat Aunt Lizzie kindly, as she probably was not long for this world. As a young girl she had lived through extreme hardship, acting as mother for several of her eight abandoned brothers and sisters after Carrie Harris, her mother, died at the birth of the ninth, and the father skipped. Though scrawny and emaciated, she married a big strapping butcher, Charley Spears, who perhaps treated her too carefully. Lizzie outlasted him by twenty years. In 1966, at age ninety, she died in the Fairport Baptist Home, declaring to the end that she owed her long life to the chiropractic profession.

And for Grandfather Dillistin

My mother's grandfather, Israel Dillistin, mentions in his 1865 diary the medical treatment he received while he was in Florida waters serving the Union Army cause. In that diary, now in my possession, he wrote about his medical care.

On July 28, Israel arrived at Fort Jefferson on the Tortugas Islands in the Gulf of Mexico. He left there on July 30th for Key West, sixty miles to the east where he stayed until September 13th. Here he came down with Yellow Fever for which he was given 20 grains of calamine and 2 oz. of oil on August 13. On the 16th he was given sugar-of-lead powders, turpentine, and castor oil. He returned to duty on August 21st. (I don't blame him.)

On September 14, Israel again arrived at Fort Jefferson, where he reported that he wrote every day for Captain Clark, preparing mustering-out rolls until September 20th when he was mustered out but not discharged. From September 27th to October 7th he writes of the stormy voyage aboard the F. S. Scott to New York, where he took "the cars" to Elmira. The sugar-of-lead powders, turpentine, and oil seems to have worked!

© 1990, Edwin N. Harris
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