October 1990

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
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Chapter 35

Ague: Michigan Malaria

The French character has been supposed to surpass all others in flexibility—in the power of adapting itself to circumstances, even the most adverse and uncomfortable, and surely no people have been more fully tried. I think it was a practical philosopher of that race who asserted that a change of condition, however severe, ceased to be keenly felt after the first three months. The truth of this remark has been questioned, but I believe many, who have emigrated to these new countries, will be ready to confirm it by their own experience. It appears to me indeed that we must partake, in no slight degree, of the mobility of the French character, in order to maintain even a moderate share of spirits and resolution, under a change of situation which is certainly what, in their superfine phrase, is termed vraiment desolant, though it must be confessed that to say in plain English, desolating, too much might be implied. No English word that I can remember does express precisely this compulsory uprooting of all ancient memories, and the substitution of new and not very attractive associations in their honored place.

I know not whether we may not push still further our claim to the philosophical character, and consider ourselves as surpassing our prototype; for the French in their lowest estate have usually contrived so to place themselves as never to lack that elixir of life—society. A faithful friend or two—and they are too imaginative a people not to be tender and faithful in friendship—a friend or two and something to talk about, rank next to shelter and before food in their estimate of the comforts of life. But the emigrant to the wilderness must dispense even with society, as well as almost everything else which he has been accustomed to consider essential to happiness, and it is only after a weary interval of solitary rule that he may hope for neighbors and de quoi causer.

And happy would it be if even this were the worst. But what would the lively Frenchman say of his lot if he had witnessed, as so many of us have, the complete prostration of his family by agues? If he and his wife and his children, his man-servant and his maidservant, and the good neighbor who tried to alleviate their sufferings, should be successively deprived of health, and reduced to a state of the most dispiriting helplessness, until scarce a hand retained power to draw water for the sick?

Such things are experienced annually by many of the settlers in the Western country; and, to finish the picture to the life, we must add the entire failure of the supply of quinine, on which alone we can rely for relief. This medicine, which acts like a charm on intermittents, is sometimes not to be procured in the interior at any price, and many lives are doubtless lost in consequence.

The cures wrought by means of this powerful agent are wonderful, and yet there exists a violent prejudice against its use. Agues are often suffered to "run," as we phrase it, the whole year round, in preference to curing them in two or three days with quinine, and it is perhaps only when the miserable patient is reduced to the last extreme of pallor and emaciation, and the grave seems opening to receive its prey, that the cure will be resorted to. A thousand prescriptions are in circulation, each of which is infallible in the estimation of a circle of believers, though experience is constantly demonstrating their fallacy. Mountain flax, prickly-ash, bark, bitter root, Cayenne pepper, laudanum, raw eggs, strong coffee, wormwood, hop tea,—but I might fill a page with the names of nauseous bitters, narcotics and stimulants which we are solicited to try, rather than subject ourselves to the terrific array of evils which are supposed to follow in the wake of the only true elixir. These are, dimness of sight, palpitation of the heart, obscurity of intellect, and general debility, even to the entire loss of the use of the limbs.

Now, it so happens that some or all of these are, in different degrees, the natural consequence of the agues themselves, and we have never seen them so severely experienced as in a case where not a particle of quinine had been used. But all this is as nothing in refutation of popular prejudice; and one of our neighbors has been twice in articulo mortis under his own prescriptions, when his friends have taken advantage of his nearly insensible state to send for a physician who administered quinine every hour or so for some time, to the evident saving of life in both cases.

But what is, in fact, the result of a class of diseases which requires the frequent exhibition of this powerful agent? Disastrous, undoubtedly; and it seems really marvellous that any who have experienced the disorder can suppose otherwise. The effect of an ordinary course of agues—say from six weeks to three months if no quinine be used,—is of a most discouraging character. The sight is usually a good deal affected, at least for the time, and I almost fear, for life. There is a constant sense of feebleness, as well of mind as of body;—a confusion of ideas and a sombre view of ordinary circumstances. The limbs are prone to stiffness and inability, and the shrinking or quivering sensation about the heart is, as I can avouch, most depressing.

Why then is it that this condition, which I have described with all care and accuracy according to general as well as personal experience,—why is it that such a train of ills does not drive away the population in despair? What an inconsistency does it seem for such as can at any sacrifice strike the tent and remove to more fortunate regions, to remain a month in such an atmosphere? This has occurred to me a thousand times, yet I, like the rest, am content to live on, with the aid of that which supports all the world under every variety of difficulty and misfortune—hope. Everybody hopes this particular fit is to be positively the last visit of the foul fiend. If we can only get through to-day—if the shake does not dislocate the neck-bone, or the fever set the house on fire,—we feel sure that we have had it so long, or we have had it so hard, or we have been so little subject to it—that it is not likely to return. This is certainly the most violent shake or the most delirious fever;—there is more perspiration, or less headache, or in some respect this attack differs from all that have preceded it; so that we feel confident there has been a change in the system, and any change must be for the better. And many times these prognostics at a venture prove quite true as if by miracle. An ague will quit one as suddenly and as inexplicably as it came on, without the use of remedies, whether of diet or medicine, and one may feel nothing of it for a year, perhaps for life. The consequences wear away, and we forget them. We look around us, through a translucent atmosphere, at a stout and even ruddy population; we see on every side a fertile and smiling country, abounding in natural resources and improving with unsurpassed rapidity,—a country where population is wealth;—and we ask ourselves, Is it really best to fly— to leave behind so many advantages,—and to lessen, even by our mite, the comforts of those who remain? Can we elude disease? And, since disease and death are everywhere, are the hopeless pulmonary ills of the seaboard less to be dreaded than these curable intermittents? All old people who have weathered the storm tell us that these troubles are concomitants only of new settlements, and that we shall see them diminish year by year,—to be replaced, however, by the less frequent but more fatal diseases of older countries.

Thus we live on, content to bear the ills we have, perhaps from a sense that there are ills everywhere; and that after all there may be worse things even than agues. Nine out of ten ague patients (as I suppose) are able to eat with good appetite as soon as the fit is over, and many continue about their ordinary business during all the time, save that absolutely occupied in shaking and burning. Those who have the complaint in this form generally keep up their spirits, and can, of course, be the more readily cured. Others see the matter in a different light, because they suffer agonies of pain, and perhaps rave during the long hours of fever. But there are few cases so desperate that they cannot be cured, at least temporarily, although again it must be confessed that it takes but a breath to call back the tormentor. The quivering of an aspen leaf will set one shaking from sympathy.

Among the rather novel remedies may be reckoned a cold shower-bath once or twice a day, which one may well believe would frighten away ague or anything else; and among those sanctioned by the learned, bleeding in the cold stage, which has been found successful in many cases. But neither of these modes is popular with us. We stick to thoroughwort,—balmony,— soot tea,—"number six,"—and the like; and avoid, as if for the life all "pothecary medicines." Yet if a petticoated professor of the healing art—a female physician so called—should prescribe the most deadly drugs (purchased at the nearest druggist's), or tell a man that his liver was grown fast to his side, and that he must release it by reaching upward while leaning on his elbow in bed,—or if she should pronounce oracularly that a dose of centipedes procured from beneath a fallen tree whose head should lie toward the east would cure "the spinevantosey that comes in the breast,"—she will find supporters who would not employ an educated physician on any account. I have been assured, with all seriousness, that the hepatic experiment alluded to had been tried with signal success; the patient having had the satisfaction of "hearing it tear" very distinctly. Happily this order of practitioners is not numerous, and from the general intelligence of the people, may be expected rather to diminish than to increase.

Of all the prominent curative theories of the day, that of the disciples of Hahnemann is, I think, the only one which we have not tried in some shape. It may be thought from what has been said, that we must be an imaginative community, and ought therefore to be good homoeopathic subjects; but we have an instinctive disrespect for everything weak—except indeed coffee, which we take only in the "decillionth potence." And besides, it would never do to cure the ague by medicines which might be rendered destructive by much shaking. It would be safer indeed, upon the principle similibus curantur, to shake the patient soundly, without exhibiting a single globule or pellet of medicine, since we should thus avoid all danger of "drug-sickness" from over-dosing.

After all, though I believe homoeopathy to be in advance of our present degree of Western Civilization, I wish all my countrymen were converts to the doctrine that "it is impossible to give (or take) doses too small." They are terribly apt to err on the other side.

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