19th Century Medicinal Treatment From Gunn’s New Family Physician

Gunn’s New Family Physician, written in 1864, is chocked full of information.  Not all of it necessarily helpful to our modern minds, but definitely intriguing. For instance, Gunn’s treatment for Inflammation of the Bowels might raise some eyebrows these days.  He begins by telling the sufferer “to soak the feet in warm lye-water. One should also apply flannel cloths dipped in lye-water and give a large tablespoonful of Castor Oil, with half as much Olive Oil, and half a teaspoonful of Spirits of Turpentine, and repeat it every two hours till an operation on the bowels is effected. ”  *I’m not sure how this last part is administered, but I don’t think it’s applied to the feet.

He goes on to say, “After the second or third dose is taken, it should be aided by an injection of the same with a little warm Milk and Molasses, and a teaspoonful of fruit dissolved in it. If these means, after repeated trials, do not succeed, give more powerful injections, a tablespoonful of the Anti-bilious physic, as much Salt, a teaspoonful of Cayenne, a large tablespoonful of Lard, and a pint of hot Water; add a spoonful Tincture of Lobelia and give the whole, warm, with a large syringe and have it retained a while by external pressure.”

He adds, “In severe cases, it is good treatment to apply to the abdomen hot fermentations made by boiling in vinegar and water herbs as Horehound, Wormwood, Tansy, and Hops, and enclosed in flannel in muslin, to be changed and repeated often.

If the costiveness cannot be overcome put the patient in a warm bath for half an hour. Occasionally leave off the hot fermentation, and apply a large Mustard Plaster over the abdomen. After the bowels have once been opened, a tablespoonful of castor and olive oil may be given once or twice a day, with 15 or 20 drops oil of turpentine in it, to keep them open. A tin of Senna and Manna with a teaspoonful of Epsom salts is also good.”

*I might add, assuming the patient is still breathing after all of this.  I should think he or she would be convulsed in agony.

Dr. Gunn’s Treatment of diarrhea seems to be slightly different.  He says, “The discharges in this complaint are more copious, thin, and watery, than in Dysentery…A predisposing cause of Diarrhea is the action of the summer heat upon the system eating of green vegetables, fruits, corn, cucumbers, and garden vegetables, and indigestible substances, change of water, exposure to damp, cold air, and sudden shock of perspiration, and public are prolific and exciting causes of the complaint.

Where the disease is produced by eating too much, or by eating unwholesome or indigestible food, as is often the case, commence the treatment with a good emetic, composed of equal parts of powdered Lobelia and Ipecac. This will free the stomach of its irritating contents, while at the same time the action of the emetic will check the inordinate action of the bowels, produce a determination to the surface, open the pores of the skin, and excite a more healthy action of the digestive organs. A good emetic will always render the cure more speedy and certain.”  *In case you missed it, he’s giving the diarrhea sufferer a powerful laxative.

There’s more.  “The following remedy has often cured the worst cases, and is said to be infallible. Take a quantity of old, rusty, well-smoked, fat Bacon, slice it and fry, so as to fry out the grease, enough to make 1/2 pint of grease; at the same time slice into it, while frying, two or three good-sized Onions; when done, pour off, and of this take 1 tablespoon once a day, or half that quantity twice a day, in a liquid state. I have been assured that it is a sovereign remedy, and I know no doubt but it is good. It has cured the “Mexican” and “California Diarrhea” when all other means had failed.

A friend of mine also cured himself of a most inveterate Diarrhea, of many months standing, after trying everything else he could have of, by simply eating, once a day, as his dinner, a slice of raw, smoked Bacon-side, a raw Onion, and plenty of Salt, and Bread. It required only about two weeks to effect the cure. The remedy is not bad to take, if one is hungry.”

*Bacon grease and onions as a cure for diarrhea are a profound concept that I would never ever chance upon.  I wonder if Dr. Gunn ever tried any of his treatments himself or if he was in annoyingly good health until the end of his days?

12 responses to “19th Century Medicinal Treatment From Gunn’s New Family Physician

  1. My mom used to give me castor oil in orange juice. Think that’s why I don’t like orange juice — and this was for a cold! Interesting post, Beth. You find the most unique subjects.


  2. Ick! Turpentine? I’d say the cure is worse than the disease. LOL.


  3. Beth,
    Love this post! And FYI, Inflamation of the bowel was the name given to appendicitis. And cleansing the bowel before surgery (removing the inflamed appendix) was thought to lessen the chance of a festering wound…better known now as infection. However, few patients lived long enough to make it onto the operating table and fewer still survived the surgery as most appendixes burst before they made it that far. As for the case of laxatives being a cure for diarrhea, if the diarrhea is/was caused by an abdominal obstruction secondary to an impaction (severe constipation) a condition known as “run around” occurs. Loose poop “runs around” a hard ball of stool. Even today in an institutional setting where patients are confined to the bed or wheelchair, after an abdomen x-ray confirms “impaction of the bowel” a laxative is often administered. ( I was head of x-ray services at an institution for the mentally retarded for 15 years. I’m now a diagnostic radiologic technologist/mammographer.)
    As for the ipacac, it is still used today to induce vomiting in children (and adults) who’ve digested poison…but only with poison where inducing vomit is not contraindicated.
    And one last note, my grandmother was a firm believer in Castor oil and cod liver oil. If we didn’t eat well, she assumed it was because we were getting “bound up” and needed a good cleaning out. lol! She also thought Geritol was a magic elixer. She lived to be 88 and died from a massive heart attack while eating ice cream. That’s how I want to die! lol!


  4. Wow Beth, that was interesting. Talk about kill or cure.




  5. Amen to that, Margaret. You had to be tough to survive the cures.


  6. Caroline Clemmons

    Beth, I have an old medical book that I read. I’m amazed people survived some of the treatmetns. Also surprised at how often turpentine was an ingredient for ingestion! Great post.


    • I know. I didn’t think turpentine was meant to be ingested, and the fact that they did so back then doesn’t mean it is. I suspect when the good doctor says if a particular treatment hasn’t work by a certain amount of time, then try this, he was tactfully not adding, that is if you’re still alive.


  7. Can’t be any worse than a side effects you can get from modern-day medicine seriously

    Liked by 1 person

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