1814: Dr. John Cotton Mather Brockway to Dr. David Willard

This letter was written by Dr. John Cotton Mather Brockway (1784-1846) of Lyme, Connecticut. He was the first child of Capt. Zebulon Brockway (1760-1837) and Abigail Banning (1764-1838). According to Pension application files, Dr. Brockway served in the War of 1812 as a surgeon’s mate in the Connecticut Militia in the summer of 1813 and again in 1814. He married Elizabeth B. (Griffin) Beckwith (1800-1881) in 1820.

A notice published in the Norwich Carrier on 23 April 1823, stated that the New London County Medical Society voted to enter a complaint against Dr. Brockway to Dr. Mercer, a Fellow of the society, for a breach of a By-Law of the Connecticut Medical Society, in making & vending a certain Patent Medicine in the form of pills & that Dr. Mercer be requested to prosecute the same.

Dr. Brockway wrote the letter to Dr. David Willard (1789-1860) of Wilton, Connecticut. In the letter, Dr. Brockway describes the symptoms and treatment of a disease that reached epidemic proportions in the vicinity of Lyme during 1812 and 1813. The disease prevailed in various directions near where the Connecticut river enters Long Island Sound. Dr. Vine Utley, a Lyme physician and a contemporary or Dr. Brockway, wrote of the disease which was called at first “spotted fever” and later “malignant fever.” The disease is supposed to be the same as that now called cerebro-spinal-meningitis, and was not then considered contagious. Dr. Utley’s observations are now published in a book by Caroline Zinsser published by the Connecticut Historical Society.


Addressed to Doct. David Willard, Wilton, County Fairfield, [Connecticut]

Lyme [Connecticut]
January 29, 1814

Dear Sir,

Since we left New York, I have heard nothing particular from you. Perchance in looking over the Connecticut Register for 1814, I discovered David Willard to be a physician in Wilton, Fairfield county, & I embrace the first leisure to give you a line. Since I have been in the practice, I have had a considerable number of cases of the epidemic which appears to have prevailed extensively & I presume you have had frequent opportunity of observing upon the disease in your practice. I take the liberty to give you a general outline of its symptoms & of the mode of treatment among us, and would be obliged to you if you will do the same for me.

The disease begins with rigors — pain of the head, often of the forehead alone — lumbago — restlessness — darting pains of the inferior extremities — slight sore throat — nausea or vomiting — fixed pain often of the right . The face is suffered but it has not that floridness usually observed in [   ]; it is a darker color & the flesh has a softer feel. The pulse is full — is not hard. The tongue is moist at the first and overspread with white fur which as the disease advances becomes brown & even black. Thirst is sometimes moderate — sometimes excessive. A vertigo & coryza are frequent symptoms and the patient will often tell you he has a “most shocking cold.”

Its mode of attack is for the most part sudden and in some of the worst cases delirium & bilious vomiting are the worst symptoms. The extremities are cold, the pulses faint & few,, and unless something readily be done, the sick person is soon unveiled in the cold arms of death. The fever in its course has delusive remission so much so that tho’ the subject of it may seem, to a common observer, the be doing well, yet a few hours may terminate his existence. Syncope is common and many times an alarming symptom.

In that form of the disease termed Pneumonia Typhoides, an expectorant of bloody mucus frequently appears early. I have seen it on the first day of the complaint — a diarrhea and sweat sometimes comes on and if the disease terminate unfavorably, it is generally by effusion into the substance of the lungs which is some cases has taken place on the third day. In others it has been delayed to the 6th, 8th, & 10th day. Were I to give an opinion upon the fever, it would be that it is idiopathic; that the seat of the local affection does not alter the nature of the disease. If the head were the seat of the complaint, it would perhaps be called Phrenitis; if the throat, Cynanche; if the Epigastrium or Hypogastrium, Colic Enteritis or Cholera &c.

With respect to the treatment of this “gigantic foe,” your correct knowledge of Physich will readily apprise you of the impropriety of following invariably either the highly stimulant plan or the rigid antiphlogistic. There may be cases in which bleeding is proper. There may be those wherein the administration of ardent spirits, as a denier resort — especially to those who have been accustomed to its use, would be correct practice. But it is believed that the [   ] purgatives and ardent spirits ought to be used with much caution. The middle way between the two extremes is not only the safest but as far as my knowledge extends, the most effectual mode of practice.

The cure is begun with an emet. of Spear. or Tartris Ant. as circumstances require. If the patient is yet in the ague, the steam bath may be used — some hot aromatic tea with the addition of Finit Opii may be given. The cold stage over & excitement being equalized, the steam bath and sweating means must be discontinued. Costiveness is removed by small & repeated doses of Sub Muria Hy. combined with Rhii & the aromatic powder after the operation, the Calo. is combined with camphor Spear & Opium by the occasional use of Essence of Pep. & Tint. Opii aa — Rubefacient & Episp. and applied freely to parts affected. Sal soda in solution is used in all stages of the complaint. Spasmodic pains require anti-spasmodics of course. An allowance of wine becomes early necessary — in most cases tho’ the local affection seems to forbid it. Tho’ expect. seem to be indicated in lung affection, yet they are not to be depended on. I have, however, given opium Spear. Tinct. Opii Amm. aa. but the good effects of this are to be ascribed not so much to its expect. as to its stimulant & anti-spas. powers. The bark has been given by some even before the fever has formed a erisis but this seems to be a doubtful practice in Lung cases.

Respectfully Sir, yours — Jno. C. M. Brockway

Please to tell me where Jno. D. Higgins may be found.

What think you about attending another course of lectures at N. H. next winter?


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