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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 33

A Fight with Diphtheria

A Fight with Diphtheria.

Some six years ago, diphtheria prevailed in Elsrickle and neighbourhood with unusual severity. The number of deaths was frightful. Among others died a young lady in a neighbouring mansion-house, daughter of probably the most heroic of our Indian generals, and most useful in quelling the Indian Mutiny. But if there was one house in the whole district where the enemy seemed to concentrate his force, it was the farm-house of H———. Here I had to fight single-handed with all the usual medical appliances for eight or nine weeks; neither friend nor neighbour almost dared to assist. The result was decided victory on the part of diphtheria; the list of casualties being two killed and five seriously wounded, from this family alone. To-day I got a message to visit this family immediately, for the youngest son, James, had been ill with sore throat since yesterday, and 'they were sure it was the bad throat.' Being prevented from going for half-an-hour, I sent with the messenger some chlorate of potash powders, and a gargle containing sulphurous acid, writing on the envelope of the bottle, 'Not to be touched till I come myself.—R. P.' On visiting shortly afterwards, sure enough I found it decided diphtheria, and threatening to be of a bad type too,—a large slough on each tonsil, foetid breath, foul tongue, hacking of phlegm, hot skin, feverish pulse, etc. I immediately told the family, 'Now, this is most assuredly the old enemy that killed two of your number, and made your hearth so desolate six years ago. I tell you this to put you on your guard. But keep up your spirits; for I mean to fight him with a different weapon,—only rest assured that your safety lies in implicitly obeying my injunctions.' All were only too eager to attend to them. In case, however, the poor patient might be discouraged, I added to him, 'As for you, James, you have no cause for alarm at any rate. I expect to relieve you in a very few minutes. The fight chiefly means keeping the rest from catching the infection.' I then injected some spray into his throat; but first caused him to swallow some water, to try the power of the spray in relieving pain. The patient expressed himself as greatly better, and swallowed some page 36 water much more easily. I then told him, as a curious circumstance, that sulphur fumes and steam formed the very same spray as what had relieved him so much at present; and if he wished to be speedily cured, he could scarcely be inhaling it too often. I then showed him how to use the gargle. In opening the cork, one of the sons stood back with suspicion, expecting some fearful explosion or another. On my laughing at his fears, he said, 'Why write on the bottle, "Not to be touched," etc.?' 'Because,' said I, 'I wished to look the foe fairly in the face, and see whether he was likely to be dangerous. The gargle might have altered things entirely, and made me doubtful whether it was the old adversary or no.'

The eldest son is fortunately a very clever, intelligent young gentleman, well educated, and thoroughly up to all modern ideas of fungi, disinfectants, etc., and he undertook to see all my instructions carried into effect; so that if I fail in gaining the victory it cannot be for want of an efficient Lieutenant. The enemy, on his side, has equal advantages, having been twenty-four hours in possession of the field, and that one of his former fields of triumph; the very first shot of his artillery having evidently been meant to be a serious one, if not, indeed, of a deadly nature. Even now while I write, I can scarcely avoid such feelings as a general might experience in commencing battle, when he exults in the hopes of a brilliant triumph, and feels that the issue of the contest is more momentous than either Austerlitz or Waterloo. I jotted down in writing for the guidance of my Lieutenant his 'Fighting Orders,' and should they prove effectual I commend them to the consideration of all medical soldiers.