Sunday, April 30, 2017

Yay for May!

Okey-dokey, so my neighbors and I were chatting about stuff a couple of evenings ago. I recommended they watch The Knick, which was a Cinemax series starring Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery, a sort of early-days House, if you’ve ever seen that series. House starred Hugh Laurie, whom I still think of as Bertie Wooster, but that’s not his fault. Anyway, my neighbor began watching The Knick and is enjoying it. He doesn’t mind gore as much as I do.

All this contemplation of early medical practices and cures got me to thinking about why I write historical novels. The reason, I concluded, is that I like to think of the 1920s as somehow nicer than the 2000s. I’m wrong, of course, and one only needs to think about what was and wasn’t around back then to realize it.

For instance my mother, who was born in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1913, remembered cholera epidemics, flu epidemics, dysentery problems and all sorts of other conditions we hardly consider these days. So I started Googling (Google wasn’t around in the 1920s either, natch). By the early 1900s people routinely got vaccinated for smallpox, thanks to Edward Jenner. Jenner noticed that people who contracted cowpox didn’t come down with smallpox, and the realization prompted him to invent a vaccination for smallpox. But other than that, there was no penicillin, no other antibiotics, and the only pain reliever people knew about until the mid-1880s was either laudanum or morphine, both derived from the opium poppy. Unless, of course, you wanted to go out and find the right kind of willow tree and gnaw on the bark thereof. Not too many people knew about the pain-killing properties of willow bark, however.

By the way, my mother’s father, William Jones Wilson, a circuit-riding Methodist minister, died two days after my mother was born in November of 1913. The family’s regular doctor was away from Roswell, and the substitute thought my grandfather was suffering from sympathetic labor pains. He wasn’t. He had a ruptured appendix. But that’s a story for another day.

Here’s a fun semi-medical fact: Dr. Pepper was originally touted as a “brain tonic” (I could use one of those, but I don’t care for Dr. Pepper). The drink was first bottled and distributed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904. From 1889-1914, its advertising slogan was the “King of Beverages”. And people still drink it today. Well, except for me, since I don’t like it. However, I don’t believe it ever contained any actual medicinal properties.

A guy named General John Pemberton, a former Confederate surgeon, invented Coca-Cola after the Civil War (actually, he’d probably have called it the War of Northern Aggression) in the 1870s or 1880s as a cure for his own morphine addiction. He formulated the original product in his Eagle Drug and Chemical House in Columbus, Georgia. Coca-Cola originally contained a combination of caffeine and cocaine. Coca-Cola was intended to be a patent medicine, but folks found other uses for it. It still has the caffeine, bless its heart, but somewhere along the way the cocaine was dumped. Probably disappointed a whole lot of people, as it undoubtedly gave folks a happy lift. Don’t have a clue if it helped cure Dr. Pemberton of his morphine addiction. Oh, by the way, my mom said her mother used to give her Coke syrup when she had an upset stomach!

Laudanum, an opiate, was routinely sold over the counter for people who suffered from any kind of pain. I know for a certified fact that if I’d been around in the early 1900s (providing I could afford to buy the stuff) I’d have been a laudanum addict because I’ve had so much trouble with various painful conditions for most of my life. That’s kind of a lowering reflection, but it’s true. People could also obtain morphine OTC for many years. In the series House, Dr. House was addicted to Percocet or Vicodin (can’t remember which). In The Knick, Dr. Thackery is addicted to morphine and cocaine. Some things never change, I reckon. Anyhow, Dr. Thackery is delighted to discover heroin because he believes it will be a cure for his addiction. After all, since heroin is sold by the Bayer Company, it has to be safe, right? Well… Maybe not.

Then there’s cocaine, which was used for lots of medical problems. Nobody thought anything about it. After all, it was medicine, right? Again, maybe not. I found this ad when I was browsing:

Oh! We definitely shouldn’t forget acetylsalicylic acid. In 1899 the Bayer Company made pills out of the ingredients and began marketing it to the general public as a product called Aspirin. Prior to the Bayer Company’s naming and marketing of the drug, one could buy salicylic powders, dump some into a glass of water or another beverage, and drink the resulting concoction. It must have tasted vile, but it was a heck of a lot less dangerous than morphine or heroin. However, by the time aspirin came along, people like me would have been laudanum or morphine addicts for decades. Or dead. I’d certainly have been dead because when I was twenty-two or -three, I got hellishly sick, was headed toward encephalitis or meningitis, and was only saved from extinction by the administration of antibiotics. Which, by the way, were prescribed for me by Dr. Benjamin, who is a frequent visitor in the Daisy Gumm Majesty books.

If I’d had that illness before the accidental discovery of penicillin by a Scottish gent, Sir Alex Fleming, in 1928, I’d have been a goner. Penicillin wasn’t available for general consumption until the mid to late 1940s. Luckily for me I got sick in the 1970s. Back in the olden days (1970s and before), you got a shot of penicillin, took two aspirin tablets, and called the doctor in a day or two. These days, antibiotics are generally prescribed in pill or tablet form. Times have unquestionably changed.

Then there were the so-called “operating theaters." In The Knick’s days, the operating theater really was a theater!

And we’d better not forget X-rays. Invented in 1895 by German (well, really, he was a Prussian, but there’s no Prussia any longer) mechanical engineer and physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, X-rays revolutionized medicine. Doctors could see inside a human body using Röntgen rays (or X-rays). Back then no one knew that a person needed to be extremely cautious when using these electromagnetic wavelength rays. Sometimes things went wrong and patients (and sometimes technicians) suffered severe burns or even death. Gotta be careful with that stuff.
At any rate, times have definitely changed since the early 1900s. Because I have such honestly terrible back pain, I’m kind of sorry one can’t just waltz into a pharmacy and buy a bottle of heroin anymore, but I’m sure I’m wrong to think that way. Probably. Or perhaps not. Phooey. Don’t suppose it matters. I’m sure not going to hang out on street corners and pray a drug dealer strolls past.

By the way, I'm not in any way attempting to trivialize the current epidemic of opioid overdoses plaguing the country. However, I had a lumbar-spine operation in September of 2012. Recovery was the most painful experience I've ever been through (well, except maybe labor, but labor didn't last as long). I was given, I think, morphine and Percocet. I took the meds as prescribed. No more. No less. When the drugs ran out, I went through withdrawals!!!! Not bad withdrawals, but I felt like a wilted lettuce leaf for a week or two and was sweaty and shaky. That's no joke. Opioids have their place, but it isn't in our kids! Okay, off the soapbox now.

Anyhow, I’ll be in touch with the winners of April’s giveaway book, UNSETTLED SPIRITS, individually. At the end of May, Bam-Bam, my winner-picking wiener dog, will select winners of SPIRITS REVIVED. SPIRITS REVIVED is Daisy Gumm Majesty’s seventh adventure, but since I can’t get the rights back from the original publisher, it’s sort of languishing out there in publishing limbo and there’s a hole in the Daisy series. Maybe one of these days all of the books can reunite and Daisy will throw a big party. Or maybe not.

If you’d like to enter the contest, just send me an email ( and give me your name and home address. If you’d like to be added to my mailing list, you may do so on my web site ( or email me (you won’t be smothered in newsletters, because I only write one blog a month, and that’s an effort). If you’d like to be friends on Facebook, visit my page at

Thank you!