Unusual health confessions began proliferating in the late 19th century as newspapers happily made public some very private health conditions. There seemed no chance that your medical records would ever be kept secret. Here are some of the unusual issues published in one Queensland town, a version of which I told live on West Bremer Radio.
The Queensland Times reported for 1876 the usual broken bones and gunshot wounds as being treated at the Ipswich Hospital. There was only one person with gonorrhoea that year, which would have meant a lot of finger-pointing when there was an outbreak later on. There were also things like paralysis of the bladder, and a really big problem was constipation and dysentery.
Conditions were often individually reported like poor Miriam Avis, who was aged fifty-six when she was admitted to the Ipswich Hospital in 1890. Miriam had chronic dysentery and died eight days later, and sadly there were many others like her.
The Cribb & Foote store in Ipswich began advertising medicines and miracle cures, and the advertisements included testimonials or confessions from people who explained their condition in detail. In 1899 there was an American called Jake Grisham. He was a veteran of the Confederate Army and had suffered chronic diarrhoea for thirty-four years – it had started at the end of the American Civil War in 1865 when the Union Army had come to town, and hadn’t stopped since.
In 1905 the medical condition of Fred Gillett from Walgett in New South Wales was well advertised. He shared his personal story of suffering chronic constipation for many years. Fred was unusual because he at least had the good sense to change his name for the advertisement to enjoy some sort of anonymity, and he died twelve years later with his bowels in good shape.
In 1909 there was George Watson in Brisbane. He actually had to withdraw from the Windsor Town Council elections probably because of ill-health. George later revealed that for ten years he had been suffering from bleeding and protruding piles. The incumbent alderman Major Darvall was therefore returned unopposed. That means that the cursed piles had actually helped decide an election.
But a year earlier in 1908, Ipswich boasted a unique father-son combination that suffered from dyspepsia. Dyspepsia is indigestion, reflux, recurring pain in the upper abdomen. Their names were William Towerton Snr who was a bootmaker on Thorn Street in Ipswich, and his son William Jnr who lived on Warwick Road.
Both the Towertons suffered from severe bilious attacks, and couldn’t keep anything down. Whenever they ate they would have violent fits of vomiting, and the straining and retching over many years understandably became very distressing for both of them.
But their medical complaints probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. That’s because years earlier William Towerton Snr was taken to court for not following a public health order.
The family was living in Union Street in Ipswich at the time, and William Jnr was just five-years-old. The Towerton’s home was inspected by the Ipswich Nuisance Inspector and it was determined that their privy out the back was in an extremely foul state. In fact, it was so disgusting that it was deemed a public health risk to the whole of the town and was actually condemned. The family was served a notice to remove it but refused, and so the Towertons were taken to court.
In any case, William Towerton Snr must have cleaned up his life because when he died in 1925, he was a respected member of the Ipswich Salvation Army.
The aches, pains and frustrations that we all suffer today are insignificant compared to those in our recent past. Let’s hope none of us has our toilet condemned like the Towertons.
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Australian Outhouse – Pentaxforums.
Ipswich General Hospital 1887 – Picture Ipswich.
George Watson’s Pawpaw and Piles advertisement – Queensland Times, Ipswich, 22nd February 1911, page 7.
William Towerton Jnr – Week, Brisbane, 14th February 1908, page 3.