Delving Deeper into Death, Disease and Disability Case No 1 Convulsions

(Originally Written For RYEDALE ROOTS magazine August 2021)

Ailments, maladies and contagions have long plagued our ancestors. There was little they could do, but many – Culpepper, Boyle, Mrs Beeton and even John Wesley published recipes for reliable remedies.

Case 1: Baby Battershill dies of convulsions in 1837 (shortly after civil registration began). How does a family historian unpick that? This simple death raises quite a few questions.

William Battershill, 11 month old son of William Battershill by Mary his wife, is burial no 31 in Sticklepath Quaker Burying Ground burial register. GRO death certificate gives date of death 26 Nov 1837 at Sticklepath, South Tawton, Devon. Cause of death: fits. Informant the father ‘who hereunto sets his mark X’.

How would convulsions be diagnosed in 1837? It is hard to mistake a full blown fit, convulsion or seizure: sudden loss of consciousness, falling to the floor, with rhythmic muscle twitching including the face and jerking limbs, and the person is usually sleepy afterwards. Injuries could occur including tongue biting, though trying to wedge something in the mouth is worse. Hippocrates recognised epilepsy as a brain disorder but until the mid-1800s fits were often blamed on bad spirits or spiritual problems.

How is it different today? We say a seizure is a symptom, and consider the cause, with  scans and blood tests for example. Today about 1 in 100 people have repeated fits, without a specific cause, diagnosed as epilepsy. Anyone can have one fit given the wrong circumstances. Alcohol lowers the ‘fit threshold’, so a head injury when drunk can lead to a fit for example.

Why might an 11 month old baby have fits? We don’t know if this was something new or had been occurring since birth, or if the child’s development was otherwise normal. Fits can be caused by oxygen deprivation during birth or other causes of brain damage. Prolonged labour, pre-term or early delivery, and low birthweight all make fits more likely. They may be associated with cerebral palsy or developmental problems.  Infections were a leading cause – TB meningitis, other meningitis or encephalitis, and common childhood illnesses of the time. Imbalance of salts in the blood, including sugar or sodium levels, and rare inherited causes. Some types of fits only occur in childhood. New fits can occur at any age, such as following a stroke. 

When did effective treatments become available?  In the mid-1800s bromides began to be used, but they were very toxic, causing many side effects. Phenobarbital was widely used from 1912. Even paracetamol to control fever wasn’t available until 1950s. Today most epilepsy is well controlled, a range of drugs prevent fits. 

What could be done for Baby Battershill in 1837?  Herbal remedies might have been tried. Tepid sponging would be a home remedy that might help if fever was the cause. Positioning the patient to avoid injury was important.  Specific diets and exercise regimes were often recommended. Having worked in Malawi 2010-12 I have seen many patients with uncontrolled seizures and know how distressing this can be. We had to just walk past the bed, or mattress on the floor, as no medication or oxygen was available.

In 1837 convulsions were common, so friends and neighbours would have seen them before and could be supportive to the distressed parents. However the stigma attached to ‘falling sickness’, meant people with epilepsy were hidden away, employers often did not want them, and others believed it contagious to those witnessing a fit. 

Some people may have had occasional short seizures and otherwise led a normal life. Prolonged seizures or ‘status epilepticus’ (fits lasting more than 30 minutes or repeated fits without regaining consciousness between) could lead to brain damage, affect intellectual development, cause mental health problems and sudden death. Sadly some US states sterilised people with epilepsy under eugenics laws, even UK law said they should not marry (repealed 1970).

Sufferers were highly reliant on family support. However, when family could no longer keep them, perhaps after a parent’s death, or following injury during a seizure, admission to the pauper asylum or workhouse, was common. Usually for the rest of their life. 

In 1892 the National Society for the Employment of Epileptics (now The Epilepsy Society) was launched. This group of London philanthropists and medics set out to provide ‘a home where people with epilepsy could live and work’. A ‘colony’ was formed at Skippings Farm, Chalfont St Peter. Fresh air and hard work were thought beneficial, so they were expected to work 6 days a week on the farm, and to pay 10 shillings a week for the privilege. 

John Wesley (1703-1791) suggested “In the fit, blow up the nose a little Powdered Ginger”. Cures included “the cold-bath, for a month, daily”, “half a pint of tar-water, twice daily, for three months”, and “take five or six drops of Laudanum fasting, for six or seven mornings. This has cured many.” Another option was “Be electrified”, which he notes he had tried. 

Boyle 1692  (famous for Boyle’s law) suggests for children with convulsions: “Take earthworms; wash them well in white wine to cleanse them but so as they may not die in the wine.” Then dry and powder them. “To one ounce of which add a pretty number of grains of ambergris, both to perfume the powder and to make the medicine the more efficacious.”  An alternative was: “Take half a dram of choice amber, finely powdered and give it for 6 or 7 weeks together, once a day when the stomach is empty in about 4 ounces of good white wine.” Another “successful medicine for convulsive fits and hysterical vapours (as they call them)” involves the liver of a Hare “hang it in a dry place until it be somewhat friable, having a care that it putrefies not”. Reduce to powder and administer “2-3 scruples” (each equivalent to 20 grains) “in any convenient vehicle”. 

Thank goodness times have changed!

Bibliography (Websites checked 2022)

Wesley 1846 Primitive Physic:, or, an easy and natural method of curing most diseases

The Epilepsy Society History

‘Remarkable Remedies: potions, lotions, cures and medicines from long ago’ by David Clapp based on the book written by Robert Boyle ‘Medical Experiments or A Collection of Choice and Safe Remedies’ which was first published in 1692

FOR MORE IN-DEPTH KNOWLEDGE OF OUR ANCESTORS’ ILLS I RECOMMEND: Janets Few’s Pharos online course : IN SICKNESS AND IN DEATH – RESEARCHING THE ILL-HEALTH AND DEATH OF YOUR ANCESTORS (240)

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