- Historic Sites
What It Was Like To Be Sick In 1884
American medicine in a crucial era was at once surprisingly similar and shockingly different from what we know today. You could get aspirin at the drugstore, and anesthesia during surgery. But you could also buy opium over the counter, and the surgery would be more likely to be performed in your kitchen than in a hospital.
October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
Some of the ills Americans fell victim to a century ago were the same as those we still suffer from—bronchitis, rheumatism, kidney and circulatory ailments; others have become either uncommon, like malaria, less common, like syphilis, or entirely banished, like smallpox. Tuberculosis was by far the greatest single killer of adults; gastrointestinal ills were the greatest scourge among children. Both tuberculosis and the “summer diarrheas” reflect and document the grim realities of a society in which food was sparse for many, work exhausting, living conditions filthy, and sanitation and water supplies well suited to the spread of infectious disease.
Americans still lived in the shadow of the great epidemics. Yellow fever had scourged the lower Mississippi valley only a few years before, and the threat of cholera that had scarred Europe in the early 1880s was just lifting; there was little reason to anticipate that Americans would be spared the devastation of any nationwide epidemic until the onslaught of influenza in 1918. But every year, of course, they had to contend with the usual exactions of typhoid fever, syphilis, malaria, measles, smallpox, and diphtheria.
Life expectancy at birth was a little over forty for the population generally—a bit more than half of what it is today. For those born in large cities it could be much lower. In Philadelphia, for example, life expectancy at birth was 40.2 for white males and 44.8 for white females—and 25.2 and 32.1, respectively, for black males and females. But for those fit enough to survive the hazards of infancy and childhood, life expectancies were not radically different from those prevalent in the United States today. A forty-year-old Philadelphia could expect to live to 65 if a man and to almost 69 if a woman; for blacks the figures were 58.6 and 64. Younger people died of ailments such as measles, diphtheria, diarrheas, croup, and pneumonia. Although a smaller proportion of Americans survived to die of cancer and the degenerative diseases now so important, their experience with them (excepting apparently a much lower incidence of most kinds of cancer) was similar to ours of the 1980s. Older people suffered and died from roughly the same sorts of things they still do.