Historian tells of 1808 medical practices

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Glastonbury - posted Fri., Oct. 14, 2011
Historical Society of Glastonbury Curator Lin Scarduzio portrays Susannah Welles and displays some jewelry popular in the early 1800s. Photo by Steve Smith.
Historical Society of Glastonbury Curator Lin Scarduzio portrays Susannah Welles and displays some jewelry popular in the early 1800s. Photo by Steve Smith.

In what is a continuing series, Lin Scarduzio, curator of the Historical Society of Glastonbury, presented another lecture at the Glastonbury Senior Center through the eyes of Susannah Welles, who lived in Glastonbury from 1756 to 1826.

Scarduzio first showed some ornamental jewelry worn by women of the time, which typically had smaller pieces hanging from it. “It's not totally frivolous,” said Scarduzio (portraying Welles), “I have hung sewing implements on it. I have a pin cushion and I have my scissors in a scissors case. So, it's a decoration as well as very practical.”

The focus of the talk centered on the medical practices of that time (specifically 1808). Scarduzio said there were just two doctors in Glastonbury at that time – Drs. Elizer Hale and Asaph Coleman. She said doctors of that era learned not from medical schools, but from other doctors, via an apprenticeship.

Coleman, Scarduzio said, was a very interesting man, and lived in George Welles's house for a time, and treated patients there. Welles was a cousin of Susannah's husband, Joseph.

“Dr. Coleman also builds ships,” she said. “He is into very many professions, and he does all of them well. He does all of the things a usual doctor will do. He will pull a sore tooth, he will set a bone, he will lower a fever, and he will come to your house and tarry there all night, should be there a need to do that.”

Coleman owned land atop Town Woods Hill (now known as Apple Hill), where he grew herbs he used in his practice.

“He also prescribed chocolate for many people who have a lack of energy,” Scarduzio said. “It does make you feel much better.”

Scarduzio said Coleman was one of few doctors able to treat small pox, by sending his most-infected patients to a building on Town Woods Hill. “The treatment for smallpox is he will bleed you, and then he will purge you until you are but a skeleton,” Scarduzio said. “And then he will keep your fever starved on a vegetable diet until the plague is gone.

"He has also learned a way to inoculate you so that you will not get the smallpox," she continued. "He puts a deep scratch in your arm. Into that deep scratch he will put some puss from one of the blisters of an infected person, and bind it tightly. A person who has been inoculated like that will have fever and blisters, but it will not be as terrible as someone who has an uncontrolled case. Many families go through it together, so there is somebody to take care of them for the whole time that they are ill and they will all come out and be well together.”

Scarduzio said in 1792 Joseph Welles wanted the couple's sons inoculated, but Susannah resisted, because she feared having her healthy sons made ill on purpose. Both sons (but not the Welles's only daughter) did undergo the procedure, and it was successful. “Dr. Coleman did not fail,” she said. “It cost us one pound and four shillings to treat both boys.”

Scarduzio said there were no hospitals, and nurses were rare, and typically family members would nurse each other back to health and sit up all night with a family member of the same gender. There were, however, midwifes for delivering and caring for babies. Doctors did not get involved with this process.

“Midwifery and childbirth are the only things that men cannot get their finger into,” she said. “Men would sit in the other room and wait. You might have six or eight women [present], and periodically one would come and give the father a report.”

Scarduzio said doctors would not assist, even with a difficult birth, until later (circa 1820-30), and that was still rare. “Most women felt more comfortable with the midwife,” she said.

For more information, visit www.hsgct.org.

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