Babies on the bottle

Ad for Chamberlain’s Remedy in 1910. The main ingredients were alcohol, ether and chloroform.

As I’ve been doing the research for my next book, which is set in the early 1900’s, I’ve been surprised, and horrified, to discover the treatments recommended at the time for babies who were unwell with “summer diarrhoea”.  Here’s an excerpt from an article written by a doctor and addressed to mothers, which appeared in the Daily News, 26 August 1905

At once stop giving the child milk […] In place of the milk give the infant veal tea with barley water, while white of egg and barley water is another food suitable for the occasion. Other foods still prescribed by physicians are composed, say, of barley water 10 ounces, white of egg half an ounce, and white sugar one teaspoonful. If there is much exhaustion and collapse, a dessertspoonful of brandy should be whipped up with the white of an egg, and a teaspoonful of this given every hour, or oftener if the gravity of the case seems to demand it […]

Brandy was commonly recommended, and no doubt helped to calm the child and make it appear less distressed, but it’s easy to imagine how babies might be overdosed on the alcohol. Another common recommendation was to give the baby “sherry whey”, sometimes called “white wine whey”. The idea was to remove the solids from the milk, leaving behind the liquid whey, which was supposed to be more digestible. Here’s a recipe from a newspaper article written in 1923:

Take a pint of milk, add five tablespoonsful of cooking sherry and stir till it curdles, then strain through boiled butter muslin. Expensive sherry is less acid, and if used for the purpose, more will be required to curdle the milk. It also contains more alcohol, therefore it is better to use the cheaper sherry.
After making any of the above, be sure to keep them in a cool place protected from flies and dust.

By my calculations, this whey would contain 2-3% alcohol, the equivalent of feeding the child on beer. Other recipes contained as much as ten tablespoons of sherry per pint of milk.

But if that didn’t work, the doctor in the first article had other, more drastic suggestions:

If drugs are required at all, try first giving a dose of caster oil. Afterwards the following mixture may be given three times a day to a child of six months, and over: —Tincture of opium, half a minim; dilute nitric acid, two drops ; tincture of ginger, two drops; and water enough to fill a teaspoon.

In an age where there were no antibiotics, no electrolyte replacements and no intravenous fluids, many babies and young children died from diarrhoeal infections, so perhaps it’s understandable that people might try drastic measures such as brandy, castor oil and opium as a last resort. But needless to say, I don’t recommend any of these suggestions.

Heroic divers in 1907

Modesto Varischetti two days after his rescue

A few days ago the whole world cheered when two divers reached the twelve Thai schoolboys and their teacher trapped underground. Now the question is how to get them out of the flooded cave safely.

Over a hundred years ago, a similar problem faced a rescue team in the West Australian goldfields. I came across the story while I was researching other events for the book I’m working on.

On 19 March 1907, a 32 year old miner named Modesto Varischetti become entombed 1000 feet underground when the gold mine where he was working, at Bonnievale, near Coolgardie, flooded. A sudden heavy downpour filled the shaft with debris-laden water in minutes. Twenty other miners narrowly escaped by being hauled to the surface through the muddy deluge.

Varischetti, trapped in an air pocket off the side of the shaft, could be heard knocking. But initially the miners held little hope that he could be rescued, estimating that it would take ten days to pump all the water from the shaft, using equipment that would have to be brought from some distance away. The only good news was that an air compressor, used for boring in the shaft, was still operating and would allow air to be pumped to the trapped man.

Inspector Josiah Crabb, the local mining inspector, found himself in charge of the rescue efforts. After a sleepless twenty four hours, during which pumping had lowered the water level only a few inches, he decided to send for divers, in the hope that they could get food and other supplies to Varischetti. According to legend,  Crabb’s young son suggested this to him. The initial plan was to do whatever was necessary to keep Varischetti alive until enough water could be pumped out to rescue him.

Frank Hughes, an experienced diver working as a miner in Kalgoorlie, arrived at the Bonnievale mine, but he lacked the equipment needed to reach Varischetti. His opinion was that, once the necessary equipment arrived, an attempt should be made to get the man to the surface, without waiting for the water to subside. Four divers, with deep-sea diving equipment and tubing, were rushed 560 km from Perth to Coolgardie on a specially commissioned train.

The divers in their working gear. Inspector Crabbe sits between divers John Curtis and Frank Hughes.

Nearly three days after Varischetti had been trapped, Frank Hughes reached the weakened but thankful Italian with food, candles and encouraging messages. The idea of dressing him in a diving suit and bringing him out was abandoned due to his poor state of health. With further supplies brought by Hughes and the other divers, Varischetti survived in the air pocket for nine days before he was finally rescued, through chin-deep murky water, on March 28.

News reports about the trapped man and the efforts to rescue him were eagerly followed by the public all over Australia. After Varischetti was brought to the surface he and his rescuers became celebrities. Still shaken and pale, the rescued man was taken to Perth by train, where he was welcomed by the crowds, entertained by Government ministers, invited to the Governor’s garden party, and endlessly interviewed by newspaper reporters. Varischetti, who spoke little English, quickly tired of this and returned to the mines.

On 12 April Frank Hughes and others involved in the rescue were presented with medals and money collected by a public subscription. Their heroism had helped to distract everyone in Western Australia from the more disturbing events of the previous months – stories that form the basis of my book.

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