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Health Issues Of Puslinch Settlers: Part 5: Surgery & Treatments

This is the fifth in a series of articles about the health of the people of Puslinch from the earliest days of settlement to approximately 1960.

Surgery & Treatments

By Marjorie Clark

Guelph General Hospital
Generally not much could be done for those who fell ill in the early days. A wonderful discovery by Dr. James Simpson in 1847, chloroform made necessary surgery a more feasible possibility than previously. When James MacKie’s leg was caught in the machinery at Charles Mickle’s sawmill in Puslinch on May 15, 1851, gangrene set in, necessitating amputation by Dr. Orton and Dr. Clarke of Guelph. James MacKie died but the article, reporting on his demise, noted that:

“The operation was executed whilst the patient was under the influence of chloroform and gave him not the slightest pain”.

Not infrequently, the sufferer would die despite or possibly, due to the operation. A surgery performed on James Hume of Arkell in early 1907 was thought to be successful but “the effects of the chloroform proved fatal”.

Due to the effects of shock and partly because of the danger of infection before the use of disinfectants, few operations, that were avoidable, were performed prior to the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Joseph Lister’s antisepsis, using carbolic acid and sterilization by steam, had only become accepted practise around 1880. Surgery was a last resort.

Appendicitis was a killer. In 1887, Dr. Thomas G. Morton of Philadelphia demonstrated that removal of the appendix could cure the condition but surgery did not become accepted as the treatment of choice until King Edward VII underwent the procedure in 1902. Even thereafter, the difficulty of diagnosis and the acuteness of most cases meant that patients died before or after surgery.

Puslinch inhabitants who succumbed to this malady were:

  • Neil Thomson, age 17, on Jan. 11, 1868.
  • Henrietta Aikens, age 34, on Apr. 16, 1896, 7 weeks after surgery.
  • John McGregor, age 35, on Apr. 10, 1897, 5 weeks after surgery.
  • John Gilchrist, age 75, on Jan. 18, 1900, after 2 weeks with appendicitis.
  • Ida Schantz, age 59, on Jan. 14, 1902, after 3 days with appendicitis.
  • Lydia Carter, age 54, on Dec. 12, 1906, after 3 days with peritonitis.
  • Sara Clifford on Oct. 6, 1910.
  • Andrew J. R. Laing, age 39, on Aug. 10, 1911.
  • Hugh McNally, age 58, on July 20, 1913, after surgery.
  • Robert Ord, age 25, on July 2, 1929.
  • Dorothy Smith, age 3, on Aug. 12, 1933, after 3 days with appendicitis.
  • Cameron Murray, age 17, on Oct. 15, 1935, 1 week after surgery.
  • Norman Scott, age 17, on Jan. 25, 1939, ill for 6 days, 5 days after surgery.
  • William Whyte, age 39, on Nov. 25, 1942.

As well, treatments were sometimes of a somewhat experimental nature. On Oct. 1, 1880, John Patterson of Puslinch, who was troubled with “a disease of the spine”, was reported to be the subject of an “operation” at the General Hospital in Guelph, which consisted of a coating of plaster of paris over his entire body.