Epidemic Diseases in Penang, 1819

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The following two abstracts from two 1830 publications should interest the present-day common man as much as the modern medical practitioner. The first is Contributions to the Medical Topography of Prince of Wales Island, or Pulo Pinang, a report written by T.M. Ward, MD, member of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh and assistant surgeon of the 30th Regiment Madras Native Infantry. It was printed by Order of the Government of Fort Cornwallis. It provides scarce information about the scourges of small pox and cholera in the early 1800s, in Penang.
The second text is from Pinang Government Gazette of July 1830, and describes how small pox was sometimes treated in Province Wellesley.

“The principal Epidemic Diseases (on Prince of Wales Island) have been the small pox and cholera. The former recurs nearly every year, with more or less virulence, and to greater or less extent, according to various circumstances, with which we are unacquainted. In some years, every case has been observed to be of the worst confluent description, while in others, the disease has been comparatively mild. For the last three years, the population has been denied the blessings of vaccination; as, tho’ the station has been regularly supplied with lymph from Madras and Calcutta, the vaccine disease has not been produced in any one instance in which it has been tried. It is difficult to explain this failure; it has occurred in the hands of every practitioner, not only here but in Malacca and Singapore, so that the mode of inserting the virus can hardly be called in question. Lymph has been conveyed from Madras in the space of 8 days, during which its efficacy could scarcely have become impaired. Nor has the climate always been unfavourable; as vaccination has been for years together kept up at all these stations. There has been no want of zeal in the medical officers of the establishment, and no means are now left untried to introduce and continue this invaluable protection against so formidable a malady. As at Malacca, many instances of small pox after vaccination, have occurred; but for the same reasons as noticed in our former paper, these failures ought to have no weight in weakening our confidence in its powers.

The CHOLERA, having ravaged for nearly two years the continent of India, made its way over the mountains of Arracan, thro’ the Burmese and Siamese territories to the Malayan Peninsula. In its course eastward it reached (Prince of Wales Island) in October, 1819. On the 28th of that month, among the Records of Government, we find a minute by the President in Council, notifying the presence of the dreaded scourge; and recommending the immediate adoption of measures for the relief of the sufferers. Hospitals were erected in various parts of the town; the medical officers were unremitting in their attention; the public authorities and private individuals, especially D. Brown Esq. Of Glugor, willingly lent their aid in the distribution of medicines and comforts to the sick; notwithstanding, the disease spread rapidly, and the mortality was considerable. There are no documents now in existence, shewing the actual number deaths; but the following extract of a letter from Mr. Palmer, will give some idea of its ravages—'the epidemic first made its appearance on the island in October 1819, raged with great violence in November, and gradually declined in December; since when we have had a few occasional sporadic instances of the disease chiefly among the natives. During its prevalence in 1819, the poorer class of Chuliahs and Malays appeared to be the greatest sufferers; a few Europeans were also attacked, among whom Mr P. Carnegy was, I believe the only victim. Mr. W. And Mr. P were among the afflicted, and they both recovered. On the appearance of Cholera on the island, I cannot now point out any one part of the town, as more affected by it, than another; its influence was general, and I was employed night and day in distributing remedies to all quarters of the town. The mortality was very great during November and December, and to the best of my recollection from 40-50 Chuliahs and Malays have died within the town, for several successive days.' The treatment found most efficacious was the prompt administration of large doses of Calomel and Laudanum, with powerful diffusible stimuli.”

“The patient is shut up in the house on the appearance of the first symptoms (from the belief that the least annoyance increases the violence of the disease until the pustules appear). The native practitioner administers doses of the gall of the boa constrictor lampadoo oolar (sawa) infused or mixed in cocoa nut water – or made up in the shape of pills with plantain fruit. Should a visitor come to a house which contains a person with small pox, the natives will not invite him to enter, owing to a superstitious idea that the disease or rather the spirit which presides over it will be offended, and the danger be increased”.

He may however enter of his own accord—Parents whose child falls sick of the disease must not wear the bajoo or Jacket. Many other things are forbidden to be brought into the house during the period the distemper prevails. Three days after the attack, they apply the cold bath twice or thrice a day, and keep the patient as cool as possible, giving him cold water to drink, but with which has been mixed a portion of the following recipe. The bone of a goose ground to paste; the ukur burh a black solid kind of coral sparingly obtained in this coast but more abundantly on the martaban coasts, and often brought by the Hadjees from Meeca being apparently the same as that sort described by Mr. Burkhardt—the ukur kajoo putih, or pinnawa putih, the leaf of an astringent quality. The above ingredients are all mixed and fried before being used.—To urge the pustules forward a mixture of cocoa nut milk and dawn birneh, a leaf of an air plant, found on areca and other trees which are in a decaying state, is sprinkled over the patient’s body.—When the pustules decline, a paste is used compounded of rice flour, turmeric, the leaf of a Jamboo ayer, and the leaf of the burumbang, a high tree. This lead is slightly acid and astringent. To allay the irritation, a leafy brance of the tree mamoo is brushed over the body. In bad cases, the juice of the root of the sooroontoon, a very bitter plant, is mixed with blerang bang, volcanic sulphur and water, and snake’s gall, and applied externally to induce the pustules to appear. It is no wonder that so imperfect, and in most instances so ridiculous a system fails to effect a cure”.

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