Tar and turpentine remedy for diphtheria.


January 25, 1890

Fearing Quarantine many people denied they had diphtheria.

Fearing Quarantine many people denied they had diphtheria.

A diphtheria epidemic raged throughout Newfoundland from 1888 -1891, medical officials identified at least 3,183 cases and it had resulted in at least 624 deaths.

Parents were desperate for a cure and sought any remedy that they could find.  As a result adults and children were subjected to all kinds of treatments.

On January 25, 1890, the Newfoundland newspaper the ‘Twillingate Sun’ printed, “A Cure for Diphtheria.”  The article read:

“At the first indication of diphtheria in the throat of a child, make the room close; then take a tin cup and pour into it a quantity of tar and turpentine, equal parts. Then hold the cup over a fire so as to fill the room with fumes, the person affected will cough up and spit out all the membranous matter and the diphtheria will pass off. The fumes of the tar and turpentine loosens the matter in the throat and thus affords the relief that has baffled the skill of physicians. “

The St. John’s medical doctor, Dr. Thomas Howley in a report to government official explained how the disease was being spread. His report did not paint a pretty picture of St. John’s.  Howley wrote that the spread of the diphtheria epidemic in St John’s was caused by the:

 “wretchedly constructed and located dwellings”; houses were “built in defiance of all sanitary laws; damp sodden foundations; rotting timber sills; mouldy cellars; earth piled up against the bared walls preventing all chances of dryness; no house drains at all in the great majority of instances, necessitating the throwing out of the house slops out of doors, to still further saturate and poison the surrounding soil. . . .”

The St. John’s Board of Health, appointed in October, 1887 to eradicate the disease faced a number of obstacles.  Many of the poor families concealed the fact that they had the disease. The reason for such concealment was that families feared they would be quarantined to their homes, restricting their ability to earn a livelihood.

So intent were families to hide the fact that diphtheria was in their home, that a woman whose children had diphtheria hid the knowledge of the disease from her sister, the latter’s children being frequent visitors to the infected household.

In 1889 legislation was passed to enable the Board of Health to have a doctor visit any person sick or suspected of having a communicable disease   By April, 1892, diphtheria had all but disappeared from St. John’s, the number of deaths for the first three months of that year were 23.

In 1923, Gaston Ramon developed a toxoid vaccine, and clinical trials the following year showed that this vaccine induced a high level of protection among recipients. With the widespread use of this toxoid vaccine, the incidence of diphtheria dropped dramatically. Diphtheria is very rare in North America today and is considered to be eliminated.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to explore GN 2:17  known as the Quarantine letter books / James Crowdy these are not particular to the Diphtheria Epidemic  but the decisions made during  the outbreak of Asiatic cholera in 1832-1833  would have been the foundation for the preventive measures being discussed by government, including the proclamation and enforcement of quarantine regulations on incoming vessels, crew and passengers; the distribution of medication and literature  and the like.

Recommended Reading: Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience, by John K. Crellin, McGill – Queens University Press, 1994.