Tag Archives: Diptheria

The healing potential of the Pitcher Plant

October 20, 1891

Archival Moment

Floral NewfOn October 20, 1891 Henry Clift a well-known barrister from Harbour Grace,  in a letter in the St. John’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram,  mused about the potential of plants that grew in Newfoundland and wondered why the medical community in the colony were  not exploring their medicinal potential.  The letter sets Henry Clift apart as one of the first to see the potential of pharmaceutical drugs in Newfoundland flora.

The young lawyer was driven to write the letter because he was amused that residents of St. John’s and his home town Harbour Grace were buying up all of the concoctions that were being sold by the visiting Kickapoo Company. The Kickapoo was an Indian medicine show that employed American Indians, supposedly Kickapoo’s, to tour Newfoundland demonstrating Indian life, and selling their medicines. They has set up shop in the Star of the Sea Hall on Henry Street with good audiences and brisk sales of their products.

Clift in his letter to the Editor argued that before the arrival of the Europeans to Newfoundland,  “when our native Indians became sick how did they cure themselves … the  answer is surely by the plants and the roots, herbs, bark of trees etc. of our native land.:”

Clift continued that there was in fact historical proof that there was healing qualities in the roots and berries that were gown in the colony. He wrote that as far back as July and August 1863 the St. John’s newspaper, The Times, had reported that “a certain Lieutenant Hardy of the Royal Artillery showed that Surgeon Logan had cured eleven men of the Regiment of smallpox by the use of the roots of the Pitcher Plant or rather a due concoction thereof.”

He continued that we were not to stop with the medicinal and pharmacological potential of the Pitcher Plant but should also “dilate here on the virtue of the wild cherry bark, dogberry bark, and berry, sarsaparilla, snake root, bog bean and the root of our beautiful perfumed, N. odorata or pond lily, etc.”

The good lawyer was well read and was aware that Reverend A.C. Waghorne  an Anglican Missionary priest working in Newfoundland  “has done good work on the botany of our native land and it is high time that the medical botany thereof should be more attended to than it is, and that we should open up  a way of relief  to the poor and the sick and to help people out of their coffins.“ Wayhorne had published extensively on Newfoundland flora in the local papers.

The coffins that Clift was referring to were for those that were succumbing to the full fury of the diphtheria epidemic. The Board of Health for the Colony of Newfoundland in 1889 reported that 1,881 cases of diphtheria affecting 878 families and resulting in 350 deaths. For 1890 and 1891 the number of deaths was 133 and 140 respectively. By April, 1892, when diphtheria had all but disappeared from St. John’s, the number of deaths for the first three months of that year was 23. Clift reported that the “cautionary sick signal is hoisted” on many homes.

To eradicate such an epidemic Clift was  suggesting that the medical community should consider the medicinal value of plants like the Pitcher Plant for consideration in the medical arsenal.

The Pitcher Plant was declared the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1954, this strange plant appeared on the new Newfoundland penny in 1880. The Pitcher Plant, also called Sarracenis Purpurea, is found primarily in bogs and marshland throughout the province. It has one large wine-red flower with a red and gold centre and hollow pitcher-shaped leaves which are attached to the base of the stem. As an insectivorous plant, it feeds off the insects which become trapped inside the leaves when they fill with water.

Recommended Archival Collection:   Search the online database for descriptions  at The Rooms for archival records and to view thousands of digital photographs. Search the Archives: https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

Recommended Reading: Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience by John K. Crellin . Based on material from the Folklore Archives at Memorial University  Crellin looks at the interplay between mainstream physicians and alternative treatments, and the effect of folk beliefs on today’s self-care practices, Crellin examines how the advent of modern medicine has affected self-treatment.


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.