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Dr Chastang's popular remedy for cholera

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THESE days most travelers visiting developing countries tend to carry with them a

copy of "Travelers' Health. How to Stay Healthy Abroad" or "When there

is no doctor", which they consult whenever illness strikes. These "health

bibles" for travelers describe the symptoms of various common diseases and the

treatments used. Depending how the information is interpreted, it can assist a person

to deal with their illness or lead them to believe they have some life-threatening

disorder and throw them into a complete panic leading to further psychosomatic disorders.

Overall, though these books can be useful.

But what did the daring and intrepid explorers of last century, the Garniers, Pavies,

Delaportes, and Lecleres, who trekked into the jungles of Indochina, consult when

they were struck down by illness? For example if they contracted something resembling

cholera, which during the 19th Century was a devastating illness, did they pull out

their copy of "En l'absence d'un médecin"? Had they such a book

it may have contained instructions for the treatment of cholera, similar to those

instructions issued by Doctor Chastang, Chief Physician of the French Navy, in a

pamphlet distributed to Europeans living in Cambodia in 1884.

In those heady days of medical science there were two treatments for cholera -

internal and external. The treatments as described in the pamphlet were:

  1. Treatment for the outside: First cover the sick with linen sheets, give him "wrap-around"

    to the limbs, add hot water bottles under the covers. Vigorously massage with pure

    schnapps or spirits with added camphor, especially when the patient suffers cramps;

  2. Treatment for the inside: Provide large quantities of tea-punch, to which a considerable

    quantity of rum or spirits has been added (60-80 grams per liter). If these drinks

    tend to increase the number of times that the patient vomits, one can then from time

    to time administer some "Seltzer water", together with (more!?) schnapps,

    spirits or rum. Warm wine or champagne, if on hand, can be used towards that same

    goal, which consists of encouraging blood circulation and preventing the body from

    becoming to cool (and one would think lead to further ferocious vomiting!).

You might think that this would be enough to put anyone out of their misery, but

no, there is a potion that had to be taken in conjunction with this treatment. This

apparently well known formula consists of the following ingredients which could be

administered together or separately:

 

Chloroform

1 gram

Saudanum (Sodium?)

1 gram

Alcohol or spirits

8 grams

Ammoniac acid

10-12 grams

Sugar

20 grams

Water

120 grams

 

This treatment had to be continued regularly until body warmth returned or until

the patient "reached a state of complete agony" (probably the more likely

outcome).

Compare this 19th Century treatment with the treatment used today. Oral antibiotics

and abundant quantities of oral rehydration solution is considered the simplest and

most effective measure. Cholera can produce dramatic fluid loss within hours of infection,

with 5-10 liters of fluid replacement needing to be administered quickly. Using Doctor

Chastang's remedy the patient was probably more likely to die from alcohol poisoning

before he/she recovered from the illness!

Equally interesting to the treatment was the precautions to be taken against the

further spread of the disease. Some precautions, amongst others, were:

  1. Get rid as soon as possible the materials "thrown out" by the sick

    (vomit and excrement) and bury them in a pit at least half a meter underground;

  2. Burn all the clothes and bedsheets that were used by the sick during the illness

    (there is a slight allusion to burning down the building the sick person was staying

    in);

  3. Burn sulfur in the apartment for several days and have bowls filled with chlorine

    and hot water exposed to the air.

So if you have the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting and excrement of thin watery texture;
  • Absence of urine, partly or totally;
  • Fast and weak pulse, then absence of pulse (too late);
  • A face that becomes longer...

then according to Dr. Chastang you have cholera. Perhaps, next time you pack your

traveler's medical kit it might be worth stowing a bottle or two of schnapps into

the backpack.

- Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia, file

No.12029 (former number) Envoi d'une brochure de Docteur Chastang, médecin

en Chef de la Marine, Relative aux soins à donner aux cholériques,

1884. The National Archives, located behind the National Library alongside the Hotel

Royal, is open Monday-Friday, 8-11am and 2-4pm.

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