As I’ve been doing the research for my next book, which is set in Perth 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.
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