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The Scourge of Dysentery

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

Dysentery is an infectious disease characterized by nausea, abdominal pain, inflammation of the intestines, and extreme diarrhea containing blood and mucus. It is contracted through contaminated food or water and spread primarily through unwashed hands. For example, if someone who has the disease does not wash their hands properly after using the toilet, anything they touch is at risk. In many cases, dysentery resolves on its own after 3-7 days but, it is important to avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids to replace those lost through diarrhea and/or vomiting. In the nineteenth century, however, no such advice was given nor were sterile intravenous fluids available. In fact, treatments for dysentery followed the standard treatment for fevers: bloodletting, blistering, ingesting lead salts, and emetics (to cause vomiting). Such treatments often exacerbated the problem.

As might be imagined, dysentery was a common disease among militia and military encampments. In fact, during military conflicts of the 18th and 19th centuries, more participants died of this disease than of conflict injuries.

Quite naturally, it was familiar to those living in communities like South Dedham. Many residents of South Dedham died of dysentery including Frances M. Dean (lot 66) at 39, Eliphalet Fales (lot 90) at 68, and Samuel Pond (lot 1) at 68 years old. In September, 1824, it took three members of the Oliver Gay family within as many days.

It was most deadly when it struck small children. Reuben Morse (lot 103) was 5 when he contracted dysentery and died as was Louisa Comey (lot 43); Edwin Morse (lot 119) and Josephine Boyden (lot 38) were 2; and Evanette Crooker (lot 36) was only 1.

Dysentery remains a problem in less-developed countries around the world.

(Top row l to r) Josephine Boyden, Louisa Comey, Evanette Crooker

(Center row l to r) Frances M. Dean, Eliphalet Fales, Edwin Morse

(Bottom row l to r) Reuben Morse, Samuel Pond

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