Tales of a Doctor...
Feltwell Doctor, Ian Nisbet has been producing a monthly article for local newsletters, and has very kindly allowed Village Life to publish them.

Last month, I discussed Agues and cited extracts from a 1780 text book. I recalled that until recently, many of the old local fenmen had suffered from the Ague and used to self - medicate with powerful drugs. I wondered whether anyone had any details. Molly Vekony kindly produced a fascinating book, 'A History of the Fens' by J. Wentworth - Day, published in 1954. The Ague is mentioned on several pages and I shall give you some samples:
"Sisman used to draw on his fenboots when he left his bed in the morning, the floor of his cottage as well as the legs of his bedstead being covered with water for weeks together. Bricks were piled on the hearth on which to light a fire' 'The whole area used to be drowned for weeks and the water came into her cottage and floated the ground floor'  'The old fen draining mills bred their own peculiar race of mill - men who knew the rise and fall of water to an inch over many miles of country, The inside of the mill was a dusky gloom with a bed and a wooden chest in one dark corner. There was fireplace, but no egress for smoke. Such was the dwelling in which a family permanently lived. 'Small wonder that fenmen suffered from ague, or 'the shakes' and flew to laudanum and poppy head tea to drug their bodies against the feverish onslaughts'
Tom Harrison (of Burwell Fen) was yellow of face and racked with ague. In Summer he gathered paigles in the fen meadows and made paigle tea cowslip wine). When he sold his ducks and geese, part of the payment was in laudanum - the foundation of that 'ager mixter' which doped his shivering limbs and kept the ague at bay for a few delirious hours.'
Tom Harrison was followed in Burwell fen by the

Badcocks, who thought nothing of having 'a mess o' water rats' for supper. Old Daddy Badcock was a little, sharp, fox - like man, as tough as wire nails, who would sleep any summer night curled up on a litter stack or bedded down in a dry reed bed. He drank 'poppyhead tea'l to ward off the ague and believed that the wills - o - the wisps which danced over the fen on hot summer nights were 'Jack - o Lanterns', small and evil spirits whose mission was to lure humans to a watery death. In Summer, he made 'paigle tea' from cowslips and distilled potato wine, raw and potent enough to drive a train. He attended chapel every Sunday though it involved six mile trudge and he died sure in the faith of Heaven."
As you will see from the above, the Ague was a problem to the fenmen and they made free use of laudanum which is of course, Tincture of opium. Opium is made from the immature fruits of the opium poppy by collecting and drying the juice from incisions in the fruits. The white juice coagulates and turns brown after exposure to airh and some types of opium appear black. From opium, we obtain morphine, codeine and diamorphone (heroin), so the old boys were using serious self - medication! The text books say that the habitual use of opium produces physical and mental deterioration and shortens life. Is it not strange, therefore, that most of the old fenmen lived extremely active lives into their 80's and 90's.
Last month, I also wondered whether Peruvian bark used in 1780 to treat the Ague, was the same as Cinchona bark from which quinine was extracted to treat Maleria. The very next day, Kay Markham drew my attention to an article describing a book called '
The Fever Trail' which described how Quinine was extracted from the cinchona tree which grew in Peru!

Ian Nisbet

More to come from Ian in future months. Ed.

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