It’s Not Easy Being Green

Spring has arrived, according to the calendar. The bulbs in my yard seem to agree…except of course it just had to snow the day after I took that picture!

In the 19th century, it wasn’t just the early spring bulbs that could show a hint of green. Young ladies also could take on a verdant tinge, if they were among the many sufferers of what was known as green sickness, also called chlorosis.

So what was it? In 1802 A.F.M. Willich, M.D. published a compendious 5-volume work called Domestic Encyclopedia; Or, A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge: Comprehending A Concise View Of The Latest Discoveries, Inventions, And Improvements, Chiefly Applicable To Rural And Domestic Economy; Together With Descriptions Of The Most Interesting Objects Of Nature And Art; The History Of Men And Animals, In A State Of Health Or Disease; And Practical Hints Respecting The Arts And Manufactures, Both Familiar And Commercial—quite a title, huh? His summary of green sickness calls it “a disorder which frequently attacks females after the age of puberty. It is attended by a depraved appetite and a desire to eat substances that are not food…the skin is pale and discoloured; the face sallow or greenish, but sometimes of a livid hue; there is a deficiency of blood in the veins; with a soft swelling of the whole body, especially the legs during the night; debility; palpitation; and a suppression of catamenia (menstruation).”

Yes, evidently, there was an epidemic among young women which made them turn slightly green and feel weak and exhausted. Fortunately, the good doctor was full of suggestions for treating this condition. For one thing, it was thought that marriage and childbearing provided the best cure; if that was not in the cards, then young women might try a nourishing diet with plenty of wine (but no spirits); moderate exercise, especially horseback riding, or a vigorous full-body rub with a warm flannel morning and evening, sleeping on mattresses rather than on feather-beds; early rising; and cheerful company. In addition, it was thought valuable to “keep the bowels open”, to wear worsted stockings rather than silk or cotton ones, and, as a last resort, to bathe on alternate days in tepid water, if the patient was strong enough to withstand such treatment. A medical professional might be called upon to give patient with severe cases doses of “dephlogisticated air” or oxygen, which would give almost immediate relief.

Sounds dire, doesn’t it? So what, really, was green sickness?

It wasn’t until the 1930s that medicine realized that it was actually a form of anemia—hardly surprising that young women entering puberty should be especially prone to it, then. Interestingly, a physician writing nearly two hundred years before our Dr. Willich also described green sickness in similar terms, and had his own cure for it: iron!

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About Marissa Doyle

Marissa Doyle originally planned to be an archaeologist but somehow got distracted. At long last, after an unsurprisingly circuitous path, she ended up writing historical fantasy for young adults (the Leland Sisters series) and contemporary fantasy for slightly older ones, most recently By Jove from Book View Cafe. She is obsessed by the Regency period, 19th century stuff in general, and her neurotic pet bunny. Visit her at www.marissadoyle.com

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It’s Not Easy Being Green — 6 Comments

  1. The good nutritious diet and light exercise along with fresh air are now the first steps in helping any affliction that doesn’t actually lay you low with a virus. I wonder though if the good nutrition in the past included red meat, the most obvious source of iron? Beef did not become a part of the normal diet until much later. Pork was much more accessible in cities. Chicken was the staple because they could be raised even in cities. I’m not sure if spinach and kale, other obvious sources, was readily available.

    • I don’t read a lot of medical history as it was so stomach-turning, but things show up in letters and autobiographies, etc. Like, beef was considered a strengthening diet for men. Not women. However, beef broth was all right for sick women. (This was part of the “low diet” and “high diet” theories.)

      A remarkable number of letters and diaries from people who managed to live long lives repeatedly insist that going to doctors only killed people, and the secret of good health was daily walks. Mary Wortley Montague–Lady Sevigny–Lord Chesterfield–they all considered medical science pretty much the equivalent of quackery. Nor were they far wrong.

  2. Fascinating tidbits here — thanks, everyone! I suppose the poor young gals might also have been bled to further weaken them? In novels of the era, it seems people are often getting this treatment.