Friday, April 13, 2012

Fever

Did you know that in treating fevers doctors used to recommend (or even insist) that the patient's head be shaved? I wasn't aware of this fact until relatively recently, when I encountered it portrayed in a novel set in the 18th century.

I've done a bit of reading on the subject since. Here's one physician's explanation of the practice:
I am always desirous that the patient's hair should be cut off. The mere removal of it is often attended with benefit; the headaches and confusion of thought are relieved, and the patient is calmed. We can then also, with much greater convenience and effect, apply cold washes to the head. Patients sometimes demur to this shaving of their heads: but they generally consent if you explain to them that their hair will at length fall off, in consequence of the fever; and that the head, if on that account only, had better be shaved at once.

~ Lectures on the Principles and Practices of Physic. Delivered at King's College, London, by Dr. Watson. The London Medical Gazette. Friday August 26, 1842
Apothecary workbench. Photo by Cybjorg, via Flickr
Having recently endured a fever that lasted nearly six days, I'm very glad this isn't still the common practice, and that no well-meaning person came along while I slept and snipped off all my hair. I most certainly would "demur" if given the option!

My hair didn't "at length fall off" after all, I'm relieved to say. Though a few extra pounds may have (I'm also relieved to say).

7 comments:

  1. Good quote that shows the medical thinking (delusions) of the day! I always marvel that Claire's hair was shorn during her horrid illness in Diana Gabaldon's A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES. Thanks to you, Lori, I now know why they thought it would help. ; )

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    1. I can't swear that's the first time I encountered the fever/hair shaving practice in literature, but it is the scene that made me sit up and take notice of it, having become far more interested in such 18C practices in the past few years. I'd like to use it in the WIP, but as my fever patient is a man, and he already keeps his hair clipped short (as some men did who wore wigs mid-18th century, and certain types of soldiers (Rangers)), it won't pack quite the same punch as Claire did, or any female character would.

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  2. At least it's more benign than bleeding the patient, which had less than salutary effects at times. Washington, as I recall, was one victim of the practice, and it weakened him so much he succumbed. At least one's hair grows back!!

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    1. I'm pretty sure you're right, Joan. Sadly!

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  3. Interesting post, Lori. I love these little bits of information.

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    1. Me too Jean. It's fun to run across them in research and weave them into the story I'm working on.

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  4. Still amazing how they find cure before.

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