|Quarantine poster from the 1880's|
Charles Hergesheimer, my grandmother's older brother, contracted diphtheria in July, 1878 and died. He was just seven years old. I can imagine the shock and fear my great-grandparents must have felt when Charles' diagnosis was pronounced. They had two small daughters, aged 5 and 3, who certainly had been exposed to the disease, so my great-grandparents faced the terrifying possibility of losing all three of their young children.
Diphtheria's onset was gradual, mimicking a cold. First there was a sore throat, and maybe a cough, but then hoarseness set it, and a fever began, accompanied by severe headache. Within a day or two, a leathery pseudo-membrane began to form at the back of the throat. Swallowing and breathing became difficult. The breath took on a putrid odor so peculiar as to be instantly recognizable as a diphtheria symptom. Attempts to remove the thick false membrane were unsuccessful; not only did the removal cause extreme rawness and bleeding, the membrane grew back at an alarming rate. The neck and face swelled, and the child eventually suffocated, hence the characterization of diphtheria as "the strangling angel of children."
|Bottles of homeopathic remedies|
|My great-grandmother helplessly watched|
the "strangling angel" take her eldest child
If the child were strong enough to survive both the disease and the treatments, recovery took months, and was often never complete. Our Family Physician notes: "Several disorders are likely to follow diphtheria, the most alarming of which is Paralysis." Myocarditis, inflammation and damage of the heart muscle, was the most common complication of diphtheria, but other organs, especially the kidneys, could be left impaired. I don't know if my grandmother contracted the disease, but her sister probably did. When my great-aunt died at 72, the primary cause of death was "chronic myocarditis".
*A pdf of Our Family Physician by Henry Rice Stout, M. D. (Boston: George Smith & Co., 1885) can be downloaded for free at https://archive.org/stream/ourfamilyphysici00stou#page/n5/mode/2up