Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dropsy was a medical term used in the nineteenth century for an accumulation of excess water in the body that swelled the soft tissues, often due to congestive heart failure, or an inability of the kidneys and liver to cleanse the system.  

The etymology of the word dropsy is interesting.  On one site I read that people with dropsy were prone to dropping things because the brain was also affected by the swelling, causing neurological side effects—thus the term dropsy. Another site said the word dropsy came from the Middle English word dropesie. That came through the Old French hydropsie from the Greek hydrops, which in turn came from the Green hydor, meaning water. (The word "dropsy" was first used in popular English literature sometime before 1321.)

Cures for dropsy were numerous and included bloodletting, purgatives, and cauterization. Sometimes mercury was used.

An English physician name Reginald Southey pioneered the use of small tubes (called Southey’s tubes). Doctors pushed the tiny rubber tubes, about an inch long, through the skin and allowed them to drain. One report said doctors could remove up to 40 pounds of fluid in two day.

Digitalis, extracted from the foxglove plant, was first described as a treatment for heart failure in 1785, when it was discovered to be the active ingredient in a folk recipe for a dropsy treatment.

In the book, The Circle of Useful Knowledge (1877), I found this recipe for dropsy:

Take 1 pint of bruised mustard-see, 2 handfuls of bruised horse-radish root, 8 oz. of lignum vitae chips, and 4 oz. of bruised Indian hemp root. Put all the ingredients in 7qts. Of cider, and let it simmer over a slow fire until it is reduce to 4 qts. Strain the decoction, and let the patient take a wineglassful four times a day, for a few days, increasing the does to a small teacupful three times a day. After which, let the patient use tonic medicines. This prescription, says Dr. Henry, has cured a remarkable case of dropsy in one week’s time, which had baffled the skill of many eminent physicians. For children, the dose should be smaller. 


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