The Picture of Health: Historical interpreter talks on evolution of medical care

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Avisit to the doctor during the 18th and 19th centuries wouldn’t have been considered an enjoyable experience. While it might not be one’s favorite place to visit in today’s society either, we can certainly count our blessings that medical care has advanced so greatly.


Shannon Walker of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources will visit the Latimer House Museum on Tuesday, March 11th, to give a lecture on medicine and how health care has evolved since the 1700s and 1800s. The idea for the talk came after a previous lecture Walker did at the Latimer House. Her work for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources at Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson State Historic Site allows her knowledge on historical subjects to run deep.


“There are a number of important factors to consider when it comes to medical care and pharmaceuticals of the 18th and 19th century,” Walker notes. During this era there was no standard of educational and practical credentials for budding doctors. Neither the FDA or the Germ Theory—which explains that some diseases are caused by microorganisms—existed.


“One very common [misconception] (particularly in the 19th century) is that anesthesia was not available and used,” Walker tells. “This is far from the truth, especially during the American Civil War.”


Walker has conducted various medical demonstrations at a number of historic sites in the lower Cape Fear region, such as 18th century apothecaries and hygiene for fourth-grade students during Colonial Heritage Days programming at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson. She’s also spoken on Civil War nursing at Fort Fisher State Historic Site. Most of Walkers presentations are on 18th and 19th century medicine, and have been living-history based for school groups and the public.


Walker thoroughly enjoys the response from visitors regarding this topic. “Generally, when you do these types of presentations, you become a bit of a “walking museum exhibit, with various tools and artifacts on display,” Walker remarks. “It’s a highly interactive medium, where you adapt your interpretation for each visitor to fit their needs and questions. This varies greatly from speaking to a large group in a lecture format—where you lose that one on one experience.” A lot of people have a difficult time relating to history because they feel detached from it. “They look at the past in its entirety and see it as a ‘bunch of boring stories about boring dead people’ that have nothing to do with their lives now,” Walker informs. “Yet, if you break down ‘history’ to its true essence, you find that it is the story of individuals, actions, and events that created where we are now. At the core, their lives aren’t much different than our own. They still had the same wants, needs, feelings, and dreams that we have today.”


“But everyone has been sick or visited a doctor at some point in their lives, [and] they understand [and] can relate. In turn, this response helps re-enforce the learning experience.”


Walker regularly finds people are surprised and intrigued to find out about “The Galenic Theory.” This theory was developed by a second-century Roman physician. “It involves keeping the Four Humors (or four elements) of the body in balance,” Walker devises. “Illness is the result of these humors falling out of whack, and the only way to restore health is rebalance them: either by bleeding or purging the body.”


Walker also notes individuals may see a connection between some modern-day alternative therapies and The Galenic Theory. “While any type of historical interpretation can be adapted for all ages, I recommend [this one for] teens and up,” Walker says. “[It] also helps to not be susceptible to being squeamish.”


Walker will bring tools as props to help guide the lecture. Serving to augment her discussion, these items will include an assortment of medical and dental devices—as well as some apothecary ingredients that were commonly used then.


“In many ways, we can view the medical care of the 18th and 19th century as barbaric, crude, and—at times—ludicrous,” Walker says. “Yet, many discoveries were made during this time that set the stage for today’s modern medicine.”


The Latimer House has housed the Historical Society since 1963 and holds up to 40 people.“Events such as these serve two purposes for the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society (LCFHS),” Brittany Bennett, office manager of LCFHS, enlightens. The first purpose to promote, educate, and preserve the history of the lower Cape Fear region. “Medical care of the 18th and 19th century would have been an important factor in the lives of the people living here,” Bennet continues. “We [feel] that more strongly in the 19th century after the Civil War when public hospitals as we know today started appearing.” The second purpose is to garner donations to help preserve the Latimer House (where the society is located) and support their mission.



Medicine of the 18th and 19th Centuries

Latimeer House • 126 S. 3rd Street

Tues., Mar. 11th, 7 p.m.

Admission: $5

(910) 762-0492

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