Sunday, July 29, 2012

Medicine and My Ancestors

I recently finished reading My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. It begins on the eve of the Civil War with the young midwife, Mary, pleading with a doctor to teach her how to become a surgeon. She is turned away: the doctor leaves to serve in the war. When Mary finds that nurses are requested, she leaves home to serve. I will not tell you more of the story line so as not to spoil it, but I will tell you that the reader is gifted with a verbal view of the aftermath of war, specifically medical treatment and the hospital environment.

Of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War and lived beyond the battlefield, those who had amputations or bullet wounds and died did not die from the surgeries performed to save them but from infections and diseases as a result of the surgeries. I find that incredibly sad - to have survived such primitive surgeries, begin to heal, and then die.

Although most of the characters in the book were created by the author, I believe the settings and environments were the results of Oliveira's research of materials written at the time of the Civil War or shortly afterward. (Her acknowledgements were at the front of the book. I neglected them until after I'd finished reading the book. If I'd read them at the beginning I wouldn't have wondered how much of the book was based on imagination and how much was based on research. Hint: if you read the book, read the acknowledgements first!)

I have one direct-line ancestor who served in the Civil War. He was not wounded but in later years suffered maladies he claimed originated during his service. Reading his pension file I wondered if it could be true. After reading Mary Sutter, I don't doubt it.

The book turned my thoughts toward medicine and my ancestors. Or, more specifically, my ancestors and the lack of medical knowledge during their lifetimes. I understand the concept of knowledge growing from knowledge: we can't have it all at the same time. That does not prevent me from wishing that my ancestors had been spared some of the diseases and illnesses that caused their deaths.

This is the beginning of my wish list (ancestor, cause of death & age, modern medical help):

Ellis Bickerstaff: diseases of the respiratory organs; died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 67
Possible respite from the discomforts of his lung problems; psychiatric care and medications

Gust Doyle: colon cancer at the age of 44
Chemotherapy and/or radiation; surgery; antibiotics

Beulah (Gerner) Doyle: septicemia at the age of 24

Elizabeth (Armitage) Meinzen: skin cancer of the face at the age of 67
Radiation or chemotherapy may have put the cancer in remission and prolonged her life

Hannah Meinzen Hendricks: peritonitis at the age of 35
Identification, surgery, antibiotics

Edward Meinzen: suicide from opium poisoning at the age of 32 resulting from a mental breakdown 2 years earlier
Knowledge of mental health; restrictions on ease of purchase of opium; knowledge of addictive drugs

Bertha Meinzen Henderson: erysipelas and carbuncle at the age of 29
Antibiotics, knowledge of care

Modern medicine can not yet cure all ills and ailments but my ancestors may have lived longer with current medical knowledge. We can't change the past, but don't you just sometimes wish you could?


  1. What an interesting post! I have often been surprised when discovering the cause of death for an ancestor and thought about how things are so different today. Wouldn't they be amazed at how far we have come?!

  2. Great post, Nancy. I recently attended a family history talk on causes of death. It is a fascinating subject and as you say, we need to remember the context of the times.

  3. Bret, I think our ancestors would be speechless at the changes in medical care. Could we see ahead a hundred or more years, we would probably be speechless, too, don't you think?


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