Thoughts on Gilded Age healthcare

Anna McGaw Wade

Thoughts on Gilded Age Healthcare by Christine Yu

I’ve had some interesting illnesses throughout my lifetime. As an elementary schooler I had a bout with the flu that knocked me out for almost two weeks, in middle school I caught a case of pneumonia, and in high school I had scarlet fever (yes, just like Mary in Little House on the Prairie). It’s never been anything that antibiotics and a few quiet days at home couldn’t solve. By the third day of lying in bed doing nothing, I was so bored I thought I would crawl out of my own skin.

But during the Gilded Age, extended bed rest was fairly common. It was a treatment that Anna Rebecca Wade herself suffered through. Her illness was never specified, but bed rest was most commonly used to treat nerve pain and hysteria. In order to prevent muscle atrophy, patients were massaged for an hour each day. However, the treatment discouraged patients from sitting up and moving unnecessarily, they were often fed their food and water.

During the process, Anna Wade wasn’t even allowed to have visitors, because she was supposed to remain quiet. Instead she dictated letters to a nurse, because she was not allowed to write them herself. She was encouraged to eat as much as possible during her meals, and after each meal had to finish a glass of milk. Later, she was put on an all milk diet. This wasn’t even the most extreme form of bed rest, there was once a patient who had jaw pain, who was not even allowed to laugh or smile during her time on bed rest.

After only a few days, Anna Wade confided that she was miserable. In a letter to her son, she confided that if she had known what the treatment entailed, she would never have entered the hospital to begin with.

There are only two letters detailing her bed rest experience, but in those two letters it’s easy to see how miserable the experience was for her. Throughout the course of this internship studying illness in the Wade Family and in the Gilded Age, I have grown more and more grateful for modern medicine. There’s nothing like history to put everything in perspective for you.


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