Medical Advice for Travellers to Mexico in the Early 19th Century

British naturalist and collector William Bullock travelled to Mexico for six months in 1823, around the same time that Napoleon fictionally visits Mexico in Napoleon in America. Prior to leaving England, Bullock sought the advice of Scottish physician James Copland, who had experience with tropical diseases. Copland provided Bullock with the following advice, to which Bullock attributed his “uninterrupted good health” during his travels. Note that an aperient is a drug used to relieve constipation.

View of the City and Valley of Mexico from Tacubaya

View of the City and Valley of Mexico from Tacubaya, 1824

To preserve health

Clothing

Your clothing ought to be light, but not too cool…. You ought to wear flannel next to your skin, and your feet should be always kept dry and warm. A light, broad-brimmed hat will be the pleasantest to wear; but even with it you ought never to expose yourself to the sun. Wear always a light silk umbrella, as a shade from the sun’s rays. Exposure to the sun in an intertropical climate is always hurtful to an European. If, owing either to the effects of a warm climate, or to the warmth occasioned by the flannel, the prickly heat should appear on the surface of your body, use no means to cure it further than taking an aperient dose of salts; for as long as it remains out, you have little chance of being seized by any other complaint. Remember always to change your clothes after the least degree of wet. If this precaution should at any time be out of your power, instead of it, or even in addition to it, drink large quantities of hot diluents, made still hotter with the addition of cayenne pepper.

Sleep

You ought most carefully to avoid sleeping in low, damp, or marshy places. Sleep always, if you can, in the most elevated and dry situations and apartments; and never, if you can avoid it, in bedrooms, the windows of which are in a direction that admits the land wind, more especially if that wind blow over neighbouring marshes or swamps. During the rainy season you should have a fire at night in your room. Always take care that the bed on which you rest is dry and well aired. The quantity of clothes on your bed should neither be too few nor too many: if the latter, you will be restless and fatigued; if the former, you will be more liable to be invaded by the causes of disease….

Stomach and Bowels

Let your diet be light, but by no means low; never allow your stomach to be loaded. Continue your water-drinking system during your meals, with the occasional addition of a little white wine to the water, especially after dinner, when the weather is colder and wetter than usual. As you inform me that your visit will not be longer than a few months, I think you will run little risk of being attacked by any serious illness, if you take care of yourself. The enthusiasm with which you usually engage in any undertaking will most essentially contribute to your health: do not, however, let it lead you to excessive fatigue; for whatever lowers, even for a very short time, the energies of the system, disposes to the inroads of causes of disease which it would otherwise have successfully withstood. Never go out about your engagements before breakfast. If at any time you are obliged to sleep in a marshy or low situation, you ought to take a teaspoonful of bark, with a few grains of cayenne pepper, in a glass of water with a little white wine in it, before retiring to rest. Keep your bowels always comfortably open, either by means of some cooling salts, or of a few grains (four or five) of calomel at bedtime, and a gentle dose of salts in the morning. …

State of mind

The state of your mind ought to be cheerful, contented, and occupied with objects calculated to excite, but not to exhaust, its powers. Avoid all the depressing passions, and be not too anxious about any object. You have nothing to fear from an attack of illness in Mexico more than in this country, therefore never dread its approach, although it will be very proper to avoid it. The only complaints by which you may be invaded are fever, dysentery, and diarrhea, and, perhaps, cholera morbus. (1)

To recover if you become indisposed

Fever

If you should perceive the invading symptoms of fever commencing, as pain in the back, loins, and limbs; yawning, sluggishness, pale countenance, cold surface, megrims, and nausea, &c. — open your bowels very gently, and add to the aperient something warm and stimulating, as cayenne pepper. Immediately after having taken the aperient, drink plentifully of warm diluents, take a warm bath, and employ most assiduously, after coming out of it, frictions with a coarse towel, over the whole surface of the body. These means will bring about reaction or excitement of the system….

If you feel your head to ache violently, and your temples to throb ; your eyes and face flushed; your pulse hard and full; your skin hot and dry, or even perspiring, — you should then undergo one large blood-letting, which may be repeated in a smaller quantity if these symptoms remain or return. Your bowels ought to be fully opened by cathartics, and cold water continually applied to your head, so as to keep that organ constantly cool: the surface of your body may be sponged with cold water.

Vomiting

If vomiting should supervene, and be of a bad appearance, a large blister ought to be applied over the situation of the stomach, or the warm bath be frequently had recourse to; and frictions with the recently bruised pods of cayenne pepper ought to be applied over the surface of the body until some degree of eruption makes its appearance; this last means should be assiduously employed if the energy of the system be very much diminished by the disease. Thirst may be quenched with spruce beer, or with water made agreeable with lime-juice, and somewhat hot with cayenne pepper: both the lime-juice and the pepper may be taken in large quantities, if the vomiting assume a bad appearance, or if the strength sink; and the hot bath, with the frictions already described, ought to be rigidly employed.

Spruce beer is an excellent drink, in the same state of the system (when its energies are considerably exhausted), — as also is brisk bottled stout. When the matters discharged from the stomach become black, and the skin assumes a yellow tinge, doses of the oil of turpentine, varying from a quarter of an ounce to one ounce, taken occasionally but not frequently, furnish a reasonable prospect of relief.

Dysentery

If you should be attacked with dysentery, and if you should have violent pain and much fever, you ought to be bled freely, and a blister should be applied over the abdomen.

You ought also to take small doses of opium, (either solid or in tincture,) with lime-juice, every hour or two. The warm bath and frictions, as before recommended, will be also serviceable. Opium with lime-juice is an excellent remedy, but it should be employed without other medicines being taken by the mouth about the same time.

Cream of tartar, reduced to a fine powder, taken in the dose of three drachms in a consistent fluid, and repeated every six hours, is also an excellent medicine, but it ought to be taken uncombined with other remedies, unless with opium; opium, either in a solid or fluid form, is the best remedy that can be given with the cream of tartar, in this disease, when it is attempted to be combated under circumstances which preclude the special care and direction of a medical man capable of ascertaining the operation of compound remedies. Under proper medical care, it may be advantageously combined with small doses of rhubarb, or of ipecacuanha, in addition to the opium.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea ought not to be suddenly checked, unless it has exhausted the strength of the sufferer. If it have, or if it have become chronic, it may be then restrained by gentle means, such as small and repeated doses of rhubarb, combined with a grain of calomel, and, at bed-time, with half a grain or a grain of solid opium.

Cholera

Cholera must be differently dealt with. You ought to restrain it immediately by means of a very large dose of opium (about two or three grains); and after the violent vomiting and purging have subsided, take repeated but small doses of calomel and rhubarb until bilious evacuations are procured. If these means fail, and if your strength be very much exhausted, take Madeira wine, or brandy and water, with very large quantities of cayenne pepper.

If you are near an English medical man, take his advice, and show him these instructions — they will be more appropriately applied under his directions. (2)

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  1. William Bullock, Six Months’ Residence and Travels in Mexico (London, 1824), pp. 512-517.
  2. Ibid., pp. 517-523.

4 commments on “Medical Advice for Travellers to Mexico in the Early 19th Century”

  • JOHN ADAN, MD says:

    Frightful quackery. You recall that the Physicians have killed George Washington with blood letting.

  • Marieno says:

    Bloodletting + calomel + opium, with that treatment, you were sure to feel better…
    Napoleon was right to distrust the treatments given by the doctors of his time. He was against bloodletting and if i remember well, he had a discussion about it with doctor O’Meara who was an adept of it.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Well-remembered, Marieno. According to O’Meara, Napoleon said to him: “You medical people will have more lives to answer for in the other world than even we generals. … [W]hat will your saint say for you, when the accusing angel proclaims ‘such a number you sent out of the world, by giving them heating medicines, when you ought to have given cooling ones, and vice versa; so many more, because you mistook their complaints and bled them too much; others because you did not bleed them enough’….”

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If these means fail, and if your strength be very much exhausted, take Madeira wine, or brandy and water, with very large quantities of cayenne pepper.

James Copland