Mental Health: Tracing the History of Stigma

The following blog post was written by Abbey Cressman, Summer 2014 Public Programs Assistant  

When researching ancient diseases, their symptoms, and treatments, I have often been struck by the correlation between the magnitude of lives lost and the health care standards of the time. I have read staggering statistics that throughout the nineteenth century, the number of soldiers killed in battle was far outweighed by the number soldiers lost to diseases . Since then, standards of hygiene have improved tremendously, there has been a powerful push towards improving public health resources, and diseases like smallpox that plagued our ancestors are virtually eradicated. What seems to be the next epidemic though is dangerously invisible in its symptoms, but just as potent in its hold; it is one of the leading causes of death among Canadian youth from ages 15-24, and directly affects 20% of all Canadians.[1] Continue reading

Lydia E. Pinkham: Life and Legacy

The following blog post was written by 2014 Collections Technician Katrin MacPhee*

Amidst a recent donation of artefacts from Parks Canada Agency’s collection to the Museum of Health Care, a woman’s face peers up at mine. “Yours in Health,” the line of slanted cursive below her steady gaze reads. Behind this seemingly innocuous packaging lays a historical figure whose life and work continues to intrigue to the present day; a woman at the intersection of gender, medical, advertising and regulatory history and of great importance to those who study these topics.

One of two Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company artefact recent  donated to  the Museum

Recent donation to Museum of Health Care collection.

Lydia E. Pinkham was born in 1819 to a Quaker family in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her family were avid abolitionists, at one time hosting Frederick Douglass in their home. They were also followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian who taught about the virtues of vegetarianism and means of direct communication with the dead. Although she only turned to the commercial creation of medicine during the last eight years of her life, Pinkham experienced within that brief timeframe meteoric success as a producer of medicines marketed exclusively for women. Her vegetable compound became “the most successful patent medicine of the century.” [1] Her remedies claimed to treat ailments ranging from menstrual cramps and reproductive disorders to menopausal symptoms. Within her lifetime, Pinkham became a cultural icon. [2] Speaking of her fame within a reflective biography published in the Globe and Mail decades after her death, the author wrote “Mrs. Pinkham was the first business woman in the United States to become widely known. Her features, as we have said, became better known than the features of any of her contemporaries. There could hardly have been a person in the United States-and perhaps in Canada, too-who would not have recognized her by sight in a crowd.” [3] By 1898, fifteen years after her death, her most successful product, a vegetable compound, had become one of the most heavily advertised products in the United States. Indeed, a biographer has compared the familiarity of Pinkham’s advertisements within turn-of-the-century North America to the brand recognition enjoyed by McDonald’s Corporation by modern Americans and Canadians. [4]  Continue reading

From Variolation to Cowpox Vaccination: The First Steps Towards Eradicating Smallpox

*The following blog post was written by Samantha Sandassie, Queen’s University PH.D candidate/teaching fellow

Edward Jenner looms large in the history of vaccination.  Known today as the “father of immunology,” Jenner is most famous for developing a vaccine against smallpox in the 1790s.  The vaccine brilliantly made use of common knowledge.  Milkmaids were known for having noticeably clear and smooth skin.  They had, it seemed, managed to develop an immunity to smallpox by suffering (and surviving) a bout of the much milder cowpox.

As the popular narrative goes, Jenner observed this and speculated that it would be possible for others to develop immunity from smallpox if they were infected successfully with cowpox.  To that end, he collected the pus from cowpox lesions on the arm of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelms and used it to infect the eight year old James Phipps.  James suffered some symptoms and once well, Jenner attempted to infect him again – this time with pus from a smallpox lesion.  Luckily for James, his body had since developed antibodies to counter the virulent disease.[1]  James was deemed immune, smallpox inoculation spread, and the legend of Edward Jenner was born.

L0026138 Edward Jenner. Pastel by John Raphael Smith.

Edward Jenner. Pastel by John Raphael Smith.Wellcome Library, London

Continue reading

Dispelling childhood fears about medicine and the hospital

The following blog post was written by Derek Oxley,  2013-2014 Work Study (Queen’s University) Curatorial Assistant

Although my own recollections are a bit hazy, my mother will attest to the fact that when I had to be taken to the doctor as a small child I behaved like a perfect hellion: stomping feet and throwing toys and acting out in a way I would never do anywhere else. More recently as an adult, I spent an afternoon babysitting my cousin’s toddler while he took his eldest in for a check-up. What started as a pleasant afternoon was soon filled with unexplained tears and unpredictable mood changes. My cousin later told me that my nephew had admitted to “being afraid of having to go to the doctor when HE got older” (having apparently forgotten that he had been to the doctor before). Both my case and that of my nephew stemmed from a fear of the unknown, namely, that which goes on in the confusing world of doctors and hospitals. My curiosity was piqued and I set out to discover whether there were any good ways of dispelling childhood fears about medicine. Continue reading

The Technological Progression of Female Hysteria Treatments

The following blog post was written by Julia Blakey, Summer 2013 Public Program Assistant  

In the Western canon of medicine, from as early as the second millennium BCE,[1] hysteria was a commonly diagnosed and well- documented disease.[2] It was characterized as a chronic illness that affected females predominantly, with symptoms ranging from anxiety to irritability, to edema (swelling) of the genitals and insomnia.[3] The term “hysteria” derives from the Greek word hystera, which translates to “uterus” or “womb”, thus inextricably linking the condition to women.[4] The Hippocratic Corpus includes reference to the necessity of vulvar stimulation as treatment for hysteria. This perspective carried into the centuries following.[5] For example, in his 1653 text on medical observation, Pieter Van Foreest wrote that treatment sessions with a doctor were necessary for those diagnosed with hysteria.[6] Over the span of 4000 years, various medical texts mention the need for hysteria treatments, indicating its importance in the medical discourse.[7]

Continue reading

Vaccines and Immunization: Epidemics, Prevention, and Canadian Innovation

the following post was written by Pamela Peacock, Museum Curator 

The Museum of Health Care is pleased to announce the opening of a new exhibition, Vaccines and Immunization: Epidemics, Prevention, and Canadian Innovation.  Developed with Guest Curator Dr. Christopher Rutty, and funded in part by the Kingston and United Way Community Fund, the Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives, and Sanofi Pasteur, the exhibit uses case studies of diseases that saw significant decreases in the twentieth century because of immunization – smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and whooping cough – to identify the cost of epidemics to society and explore the search for adequate treatment and preventative measures, such as vaccines.

There is significant public debate over the merits and risk of vaccinations, much of which is fueled by inflammatory rhetoric rather than facts and science.  This debate has raged ever since the first vaccine for smallpox was proposed by Dr. Edward Jenner in the 1790s and, doubtless, it will continue as new vaccines are developed.  What is often sidelined in this debate, however, is the impact of the diseases that vaccines have helped to control and prevent.  While risks of vaccines – real or inflated – are highlighted in the debate, the ravages of disease including their mortality rates, symptoms and long-term side-effects are often neglected because the bulk of society no longer connects to the first-hand fear of a growing epidemic.  Yet, such epidemics are occurring more frequently in Canada as diseases that were previously well controlled return, in part due to decisions not to get vaccinated.  A better understanding of the human, societal, and economic impact of diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and pertussis, and the beneficial effect of vaccination programs should help individuals make more informed choices. Continue reading

A Fighting Chance: Disease, Public Health, and the Military, Part 3

*the following blog post was written by 2013 Margaret Angus Research Fellow Robert Engen

As we saw in the last blog post, from a medical point of view the two military campaigns to capture the Dutch island of Walcheren – the first in 1809, the second in 1944 – could not have been more different. The 1809 British expedition was ravaged by disease, a lethal combination of malaria, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery that infected over 60% of the force, killed over 4,000 soldiers, and left tens of thousands as casualties.[1] But in 1944, the Canadian Army, fighting over the same ground, suffered only a small number of casualties from disease, a negligible number from the specific infectious pathogens of 1809, and virtually no deaths from illness.[2]

What caused such a drastic change? The answers can be found in the domain of public health practices.  Surgical practices and technology had improved considerably, nursing had become a major component of medicine, and acute care treatments had advanced, meaning that few people infected with a disease would die from it; but, the critically important change was that in 1944 only a tiny percentage of soldiers were falling ill in the first place. Continue reading

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