Beliefs About Infectious Diseases a Hundred Years Ago

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Sunday, December 15, 1912: Went to Sunday School this afternoon. Jimmie also has the pink eye and says I gave it to him. He was real mad for a time.

Recent photo of the house the Muffly's lived in.

Recent photo of the Muffly’s house.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Poor Jimmie—pink eye is no fun.

Of course, Grandma’s seven-year-old brother is right—he probably caught the pink eye from Grandma . She wrote that she had pink eye on December 10—and that it was getting better on December 12.

Did the Muffly’s try to prevent the spread of pink eye?

Here’s what I found in a hundred-year-old book called Personal  Hygiene and Physical Training for Women  about how to avoid infections (though it focuses on  influenza rather than pink eye).

We have already seen that bacilli are not only the cause of acute infections, but also of chronic bronchitis, and that this was especially  true of the bacillus of influenza and the pneumococcus of pneumonia.

It is well know that influenza is an infectious disease, which rapidly spreads through the family and the community., but it is not so well-known that the so-called “common colds,” ordinary sore throat, and tonsillitis are also highly contagious. The infection is carried from one person to another by direct contagion; the air is being constantly sprayed with the germs of disease in talking, laughing, sneezing, and coughing. In coughing and sneezing it is not sufficient to hold the hand before the moth—a handkerchief must be used for this purpose.

9 Responses

  1. Once again you have sparked my imagination and led me to time travelling! I am especially fascinated with the ideas for keeping good health – the old ways and thoughts. Hardly anyone really uses handkerchiefs anymore since the advent of Kleenex. And of course the old book left out hand-washing and hand sanitizers didn’t exist. Still, they were onto something about the infectious nature of some ailments weren’t they? And we haven’t come such a long way at that.

  2. Sheryl, about old-fashioned notions of the spread of disease. This was a nice reminder of attitudes of the past toward it. My feeling is that they may have been more careful than we are sometimes. When I was a child, people stayed home when they became ill. I’ve known people in our present day, who though ill, will visit others, even older persons whose health is fragile. So we have gained in our understanding of certain things, such as cures, but this may give us a false sense of security about the spread of disease.
    Maria

    • I agree that people today sometimes have a false sense of security. People who are ill sometimes seem to use very poor judgment about whether to visit people.

  3. I’ve never caught ‘pink eye’ but just getting over this nasty cold. I’m wearing out my skin with the sanitizer….what can you do? Wear gloves grocery shopping? That’d get some crazy looks.

    • I had pink eye once or twice when my children were small. It was very contagious and went right through the family. My eyes itched and hurt; and I looked and felt terrible. The one good thing about it was that it only lasted a couple days.

      If I remember correctly, you’ve had this cold for a week or so. . . I absolutely hate colds that drag on. I hope you feel better soon!!!

      • Eck, Pink Eye sounds positively awful, glad I haven’t had to manage that. I think there’s a lot of ‘this’ going around…much better now, thanks a bunch for your message Sheryl!

  4. I had one case of pink eye and I caught it from my son. His case seemed to last a long time. Mine wasn’t as bad but still horrible. The poor sick Mufflys.

  5. [...] Poor Ruth—she was Grandma’s older sister. It’s no fun to be sick during the holidays.  Pink eye was going through the family. Grandma had it on December 10 and their brother Jimmie had it on December 15. [...]

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