, Derry, New Hampshire

September 6, 2012

Column:Old-time cures are no match for modern medicine

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — Again, I go into my miscellaneous file to find snippets of local history that will never make it into a full story. It’s kind of like the fabled desk drawer in the elderly man’s house marked “pieces of string too small to save.”

In my files is a copy of the Exeter Newsletter from June 1770. I saved it because it told of a murder in Derry/Londonderry. On that same page, it was mentioned that Mr. Campbell fell to his death while erecting the frame of the First Parish Church in East Derry. There was also an article about how Boston would no longer trade with Portsmouth because they had to decline taking part in their Non-Importation Agreement to boycott all trade with mother England. There was also a piece on curing whooping cough.

I immediately thought that the latter article would make a good story as I heard on the TV news this morning that whooping cough was being diagnosed at epidemic levels in America. So far in 2012, there have been nearly 18,000 cases. Officially, the disease is called pertussis and usually recognized by the loud, persistent cough. To find out the diagnosis and treatment of whooping cough go to the March of Dimes website at I am told I had it as an infant. In my family it was called “hooping” cough but others I know call it “whooping” cough. I’m told that both pronunciations are acceptable.

Now, we can fight disease by vaccination and antibiotics. Back in 1770, that was not the case. Most doctors back then believed that a suitable cure-all was to make an incision into a sick person’s flesh and bleed him to get rid of the bad humors. Too many of the sick were killed by the cure. George Washington died in 1799 after being bled.

Because very few towns had apothecary stores, many 18th century people made their own medicines. Herbal remedies were very common. The knowing ones could go out into the fields or forest and find bark, berries, and leaves with known medicinal properties. These they would boil it into a tea or powder it to make a poultice to cure everything from cancer to the common cold. Sometimes they would add store-bought elixirs to these natural remedies.

The 1770 cure for whooping cough contained coltsfoot as its central ingredient. Coltsfoot is a low-growing plant that grows wild in New England. Its flower resembles in color and shape the common dandelion. It can be made into a tea that soothes sore throats, bronchitis and asthma. In Europe today, coltsfoot is still a popular cure for smoker’s cough. Its sale is banned in Germany because it can cause liver problems in infants if taken by pregnant mothers or given to babies with the croup. I can not recommend anyone use this cure-all which I present as an historical curiosity.

The recipe says: “Take dried coltsfoot, a good handful, cut them small, and boil them in a pint of spring water, till half the water is boiled away then take it off the fire; when almost cold, strain it through a cloth, squeezing the herb as dry as you can; throw the herbs away, and dissolve in the liquor half an ounce of sugar candy, finely powered; when dissolved, add to them one spoonful and a half of tincture of licorice.” Adults could take four spoonfuls three or four times a day to bring about a cure in two or three days.

Perhaps such cures helps to explain why the average life expectance in 1770 was less then half what it is today. Few babies born in the 18th century could expect to celebrate their 40th birthdays. Thank God for today’s well trained doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical products and hospitals. I would hate to have my life — or that of my wife, children or grandchildren — dependent on the curative properties of a back-yard weed mixed with licorice and sugar.


Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.