pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Treating Ear Infections – Hold the Onions

Don’cha just love Vintage Medical Advice? Page 477 of a 1919 textbook of medicine recommends treating an earache with a baked onion – externally thankfully. Today, we treat ear infections a tad bit differently.
VanGogh Self Portrait – Remedies we don’t try anymore
Health Knowledge: 34 Departments Scientifically Illustrated is a two-volume textbook of medicine representing the “best practices” in 1919; and the medical understanding of literally the worlds leading physicians and medical institutions (Yale, Cornell, the Royal College of Surgeons, etc.) – “the result of the best and most advanced thought and experience on the subject of medicine.”

Remedies We Don’t Do Anymore

One would think that they must all have made sense (at least a little) back in 1919 when they were being advised in print – at least we would hope so; but, by today’s standards they seem a bit bizarre.

I guess we’ve come a long way in many things. Let’s take a peek at some of the other pages in the book for entries under: Croup, Colds, Pregnancy (part 1), Hair Care, Tuberculosis, Skin and Scalp (part 2).


In the early 20th-century all three of these were remedies recommended by physicians as “best practices” for the treatment of croup – the parent-scaring hoarse cough in a small child that threatens to cut off breathing.

1 – A hot bath to which mustard has been added

Ever since there have been babies (thousands of years) an infection has been able to nearly swell shut their small voice-box and make breathing very difficult. And for just as long a time it has been known that steam and moisture therapy could make breathing easier.

Unfortunately, until babies come with larger airways or we produce enough vaccines to eradicate the multitude of childhood diseases causing it, croup will be with us; and, just as unfortunate, standing in the steamy shower and cool-mist humidifiers are pretty much the same recommendation we make today. But, hey, thousands of years makes it tried and true advice.

Mustard is still used by holistic “lay practitioners” in vague respiratory conditions; although, today they’ve seen the common sense that putting it in water for steam is just a waste of good mustard and have relegated it to chest poultices. The claim that mustard’s high selenium content provides anti-inflammatory effects seems fairly specious and has never been able to be proven.

2 – Two strips of bacon tied around the throat

There are some limited cases where slapping macerated bacon on skin will seem to draw out parasites and larvae; but, even though it was written in the aforementioned medical book, there was no rationale given and it completely defies explanation for its use in croup – by today’s understanding.

3 – A kerosene-soaked rag applied to the throat

Parents standing in the shower at night trying to comfort a barky-coughed child notice that it tends to ease a bit if the cough produces vomiting. Compounds including ipecac and kerosene were once used in children with croup to induce vomiting; but today we better understand the dangers of adding even more burden on an already miserable child.


We understand now that many maladies with mysterious origins are actually caused by viruses – fragments of non-living nucleotide segments which only “live” by taking over other living things. Creepy!

With hundreds of different causes, no natural immunity and no known “cure” – despite what any lay press might claim – controlling/ameliorating the symptoms and taking steps to limit its spread to others is still about what we can hope for these days.

Yea, I know all about Vitamin C, and we haven’t seen much to say that taking it causes harm; BUT, I wouldn’t take a bet for real money that it would actually prevent me from catching a cold from someone. I think it is, however, a darn site better than what physicians, unknowingly, recommended in 1919 to manage colds.

1 – Whiskey mixed with melted rock candy

The use of alcohol for colds is so ingrained that I can see why any author wouldn’t dare contradict it – even if they had known better back then. But, who can argue with the only type of sleep-inducing analgesic that the public had readily available. Our symptomatic medicines of today merely leave out the intoxicating aspect (and are “better” for children) but still only help the symptoms.

The “Hot Toddie” is warmed spirits blended with sugar, spices and vitamin C-packed citrus fruit – very little to argue with.

2 – A plaster of melted lard and turpentine

I’m really not sure what it was with their use of all that turpentine in some of these vintage books of medicine. It does make a great solvent for other materials and its volatile vapors do make quite a stir with ones sinus cavities.

Vicks® VapoRub™ is a descendant of the vintage “turpentine and lard” concoction formerly recommended – rendered a bit more palatable by masking the noxious smell of turpentine with other volatiles like eucalyptus and menthol.

3 – Steeped red-pepper water

For centuries red-pepper water has been used as a decongestant. Steeping red peppers can induce sneezing (which, like blowing the nose, removes mucous) and fits in with the unproven mantra of “homeopathy” – “likes are cured by likes.”


These pieces of advice were once considered part of optimal pregnancy guidance in the vintage medical text, along with the advice that for dinner it was thought that “pregnant women should have a ‘light’ meal, consisting of poultry, sweetbreads, or tripe.”

1 – Maintain an “undisturbed composure and cheerfulness coupled with a bright and happy prospect”

A bit archaically worded perhaps but essentially good advice even today. Then as now adequate rest, relaxation and moderate exercise were considered important to a healthy pregnancy. I’m sure though it’s now much less difficult to achieve than it was back then.

We do now consider that more vigorous exercise is safe; BUT I’m equally sure that their definition of “moderate” was a whole lot different than ours.

2 – Husbands should sleep in a separate room after the fourth month of pregnancy

3 – In early pregnancy, husbands should sleep in a separate room at times when menstruation would have occurred

In the early 20th century, even in the U.S., the childhood death rate was massive. Pretty much every family had at least one child die and most had several – most from “unkown causes.” Most clinicians recommended avoiding sex throughout much of pregnancy and this advice was given to facilitate that.

Today, sex is considered safe during uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancies.


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2 Posts in This Series

  • Hair - Skin – 26 Jan 2015
  • Croup - Pregnancy – 22 Jan 2015