Its not always about the medicine

Posted By on February 17, 2013

So clearly I haven’t written in my blog as frequently as I had originally expected to.  The best laid plans and all that.  I am going to try to improve upon that this year, but one of the reasons that I haven’t written is because at the moment I don’t have many medical- related things to write about.  This past year has been filled with many great new adventures- from visiting new historical sites and playing Surgeon at them, to actual real life events- like buying a new house and building an 18th century library.  So now with the winter slowly fading into spring, I’m brought back to remembering that I do have a blog and should write in it. But maybe I won’t just focus on the medicine.

As you grow in the reenacting hobby, it seems as if you take on new aspects of your regular life as well, to learn more things in an 18th century context. For example, a few years ago I took up beer making in order to understand the fermentation process, and because beer was consumed more regularly than water.  This year I took up the challenge of learning to sew.  I have also taken up quilting, which seems to be sucking away as many free minutes as I have in the day to donate to it. And I’m not complaining about that- just stating a fact.

February is also the month of letters campaign, run over at  A minimum of 23 letters to be written for the month of February- one for every day the post runs.  I’ve written almost 30 so far, spending time before bed in the evenings in my library, at my desk, writing with quill and ink or just ink to paper.  It too, is helping me develop skills for my 18th Century life.

Recently, there was a meme stating “I’m not a living historian, I’m just working on my post-apocolyptic skillset.  While amusing, in some ways it is kind of true.  Many of the things I know how to do now, a lot of people I know outside of the hobby don’t.  I take time to sit and write letters instead of just emaling someone- I have a 10 foot long quilting frame in my basement waiting for me to do hand quilting instead of machine quilting.  My fingers have calluses.  In my living room, I display my 18th Century books, surgical tools, and my tintype proudly where others might put a Home and Gardens vase.  And I’m not ashamed of it.  It is something to have pride in- to be able to perform these tasks, and to be able to keep myself busy without the need for a computer or text messaging or a television.  I think it is something we’ve lost, and its something that I’m learning to really love again.  So I apologize for not writing  about medicine, but I’ve been making the Doctor and Miss Charlotte more well rounded individuals in an 18th Century sense.  I promise to write more soon.

On the march again

Posted By on June 7, 2012

Tonight I took all the bottles off their display shelves, the portmanteau and pill tile from their places of honor in my living room, and opened up the boxes and cases to fill with medical items from that era long ago I love so much.  Tomorrow I head for Cumberland, Maryland, and the site of the westernmost fort of the British in 1755- Fort Cumberland.

Recently I’ve been reading the diary of Charlotte Brown, the matron of the hospital at Fort Cumberland, and the first woman to get a military commission from the British Military.  For the most part, her diary speaks of her travels, of visiting with ladies in town and the areas surrounding as she travels, and some of her conversations with individuals she considers her friends.  Additionally, she mourns the loss of family members back home, and then too, of her own brother while on campaign.  But I have to wonder, on nights like tonight, if there weren’t days and evenings where she too was packing bags and boxes, loading them on to the wagons that would take her to her various destinations.  She sailed across from England in late 1754, then up to Alexandria, and then from there took wagons to Wills Creek, the site of Fort Cumberland.  She briefly mentions packing the wagons with her supplies, but after that, there’s only scant moments of her saying she packed something.

I have to imagine that being the Matron of the hospital, there would have been a fair amount of organizing on her part- making sure the linens and bedding that Braddock ordered for the hospital were packed properly, the food stores and perhaps even the medicines her brother, the Apothecary, would have used.

It made me smile to think on it, as I stared at all the boxes that would be filling my “carriage” in the morning- 6 if you include my personals chest that stays in my tent.  It seems so long ago when I was getting started and had just one simple box and the small rolled case of instruments.  How far I’ve come in knowledge and in supplies. How far I still have to go in both sometimes seems a daunting task, but then I think about how happy it makes me feel.  I laughed at entries in Charlottes diary as if I were reading notes from an old friend.  I made note of facts that were important to my impressions, and I enjoyed it more than any fiction book I could pick up.

I need to remember that enjoyment.  Its far too easy to feel as if I know enough, and don’t need to learn more, or don’t need to write here in my blog.  I need both of these things, and I need to continue using both to grow.  So in my bag will be more things to learn from, and in my brain will be a notepad of things to write when I return.




Lunch for Leeches

Posted By on January 19, 2012

Last year about this time I talked about Sippy, Gulpy, and Glugger, the newest members of the Doctor’s family.  Sadly, when trying to feed them something from a domestic grocer (chicken livers), they met their demise.  I take this as semi-proof that chicken livers in general are evil, but you can take it for whatever you’d like.

However, this past November, I was graced with new leeches* from the same individual (thank you to Miss Nelson for them, and for Mr. Miller for delivering), and now have 2 beautifully happy leeches in a nice tank, living a very happy life.  Sippy and Glugger (yes I repeated names), like their counterparts, however, needed to eat as well, and so this time around I did some better homework.

Thanks to Miss L, who used to work at the Mercer Apothecary in Fredericksburg, VA (who has a ton of leeches), I was able to find out that they should just be given what they know best- blood.  So off I went to the best place I knew to get blood- the local butcher.  To their credit, Hemp’s Meats in Jefferson, MD didn’t flinch when I called asking when they were butchering in order for me to get some blood for my little guys.  They actually were rather interested in the idea of me using the blood for something like this!  So yesterday afternoon at lunchtime, I was able to procure several ounces of blood for my little suckers, and let them fill their gullets.



As you can see, both leeches were very happy with the arterial blood that Hemp’s provided, and each earned their name respectively.  Glugger finished his meal in about 30 minutes of continuous writing and sucking, and Sippy took his time, hiding in a different area of the bowl for about 2 and a half hours before filling himself full of the tasty ooze.  To see what it looks like when they eat- you can click here.  Yes, it really is that fascinating.

After glugger was finished, I put him back into his water tank to start working digesting and working off that meal.  He had easily tripled in size, looking less like a small snake, and more like a vienna sausage now.  You can see video of him trying to move around the tank here.  He’s kinda waving to me almost in this video, which is kinda cute, in an “I think slimy things are neat” kinda way.Leeches in their tank post feeding

After some coaxing, and some moving around in the tub of red, Sippy finally found his favorite spot of the meal, and gorged himself as well.  Once he started doing that, it only took him another 20 minutes of feeding before he too was as big as Gulpy.  I put him back as well, and of course got a picture of them side by side in the tank.  Note: their tank is only 1 gallon, so while it is impressive that they’re stretched out the whole way across, its also kinda small.  According to my research on them, however, they can get pretty big, about 8-10 inches long at full growth.

All told, I estimate that the pair of leeches ate about 1-1.5 ounces of blood from the container, which isn’t bad!  On average a leech will eat around 5-15ml of blood, so these guys are slightly on the overachiever side.  The gang will need to be fed every 90 days or so.  I’ve already warned the butcher that I would be calling again for more in the spring, and I may actually invest in more leeches.  They’re actually very fascinating to have in the tank as pets (watching them dig in the rocks at the bottom of the tank is truly fascinating!), and it would be nice to start my own collection of leeches to bring to events.  As it stands currently, I only bring out one at a time, in order to keep track of them and to make sure they’re not all traumatized at once.  If I had a small pack of leeches (like 8 or so), then I may be more inclined to bring more in the future.  But again, I can only really bring them out in the spring and fall, or in places where I’m air conditioned, so it may not be the most ideal thing to do.  I’m debating whether or not Sippy or Gulpy will be making the trip to my first event of the season- Military Through the Ages in March.

Yes, this post isn’t really about 18th century medicine other than it has leeches in it, and the leeches were used in 18th century medicine.  But alot of people at events have asked me if I have leeches, and if so, what I feed them to keep them sustained.  Other people have offered themselves up to feed the leeches, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I am unable to take you up on that offer.  Leeches can carry blood born pathogens (just like mosquitos carry West Nile, etc.)  In this day and age when sometimes inquisitiveness becomes “hands on experimentation,”  I want to make sure that these little guys can’t really do any damage if they were to attach to someone by accident.  I personally take universal precautions when pulling them in and out of the tank for feeding and transport to events (rubber gloves etc so I don’t let them have me for lunch.), and keep them in their jar at events to swim around and look “cute” for everyone.  Plus, it can occassionally take 48 hours or more for a leech bite site to cease bleeding because of the hirudin (the anticoagulant), and there’s a slight risk of an anaphylactic reaction to it as well, and no one wants that.

I think the most interesting thing for me is seeing how they’re going to shrink back down from their hugely engorged states.  I’ve seen Glugger stretch out a couple of times, and parts of him are skinny when he does that, but there’s still a fair amount of blood in there for him to digest.  But for the time being, they’re my little green sausages, and I’m very content in the knowledge that they fed well and will hopefully continue to grow and thrive as members of the entourage.

*Author’s side note: I was given 3 leeches by Miss Nelson, but only have 2.  The general consensus is that Gulpy has run off to run for public office.  Vote Gulpy in 2012.

Dim lights and sawbones

Posted By on January 17, 2012

We’ve had some very dark and stormy nights here on the mountain of late, and it takes me back to a night back in October, when we had an uncharacteristically early snowstorm, and power outage.  While for many people I know, this would be cause for crisis and chaos- I found it to be a great opportunity to be forced into doing something I hadn’t done for awhile- study 18th Century medical literature!

Just prior to this at Ligonier, I had been given several new books, and I continue to intensely read Samuel Sharp’s Treatise on Surgery with great excitement, so I sat them all at my dining table, along with 2 lanterns, some more candles for extra light, a notebook and pen, and a glass of good scotch.  Looking at it in the dim light, I couldn’t help but think about those studying, or even working by candlelight as apprentices or students of Medicine, and how difficult that must have been.  I know that for my eyes to see the small writing and not have the book right up against my nose, and at times I had to find unique angles in order to keep the shadows from darkening important words.

This night, I had finally gotten the opportunity to really study in depth the process of Amputation in Sharpe’s Treatise on Surgery.  I had skimmed it several times, but being able to take in the full process, and the personal notations that Sharpe puts into his treatise.  Sharpe’s illustrations of his tools in his treatise are also very good (you can see the tools for removing the stone in the candlelit picture on the right.

Amputation in the 18th Century , was called the Capital Operation, and its easy to see why.  It had the largest tools, had the largest mortality rate, and in many ways was the most technical surgery that a surgeon would perform.  In some cases, this surgery was why surgeons were commonly called Sawbones, because that’s effectively what they were doing.  But when you break down the procedure, its significantly more involved than the typical person would ever anticipate.  Within a few short minutes, a surgeon is required to cut off circulation to the limb, divide the skin and muscles down to the bone in 2 slices, have their assistant pull the skin and muscles back to expose the bone, cut the bone in half, and then either cauterize the arteries and veins, or reach into the muscles to pull out and tie off all of the bleeders.  And of course, your patient, even though they’re being held down by 4 of their closest, and strongest friends, is screaming and more than likely attempting to thrash about.  I would have to think that out of all the surgeries studied, this would be the most traumatic and painful, which is probably why many patients died from shock during the procedure.  (As a note: The fastest Pre Anesthetic amputation is attributed to Robert Liston, who could remove a limb in approximately 30 seconds, but the average was a minute to 3 minutes.)

Yeah I wouldn't want someone coming at me with those either.

Sharpe has many bits of information about the procedure of amputation, but a lot ofhis own unique ancedotes regarding the subject are divided by the different types of amputation he’s discussing.  While the procedure is basically the same regardless of which limb, each area for amputation has its own caveats.  For example, “There are in the Armies a great many Instances of Gun-shot Wounds of the Arm near the Scapula, which require Amputation at the Shoulder; but the Apprehension of losing their Patients on the Spot by the Hæmorrhage, has deterred Surgeons from undertaking it.”  At the end of this statement he does believe that it is possible to do this procedure based on a tale of a miller who had his arm ripped off by the grist mill, but he doesn’t have the answers as to how to do it effectively yet.

Sharpe also speaks on when amputations should be performed in the cases of Gunshot Wounds, compound fractures, and all sudden accidents requiring amputation.  He states that they are attended “with the best success” if immediately performed.  He also alludes to the fact that amputation is somewhat an art, in that you have to have experiences to understand where best to cut for the best success of an amputation in cases of mortification (limb death.) Other tips that he gives the aspiring surgeon for amputation are to use silk thread to sew, and to apply a bit of Barley water or warm milk to the dressings to aid in healing.  Whether or not either of these actually aids with that is unknown.

Reading these entries in the dim candlelight and trying to envision the procedures in my head as Sharpe described them, I can only imagine the difficulty, and the truly great skill that the surgeons would have had to have to perform the Capital Operation. I could not even imagine being a freshly released surgeons mate or young surgeon having to perform this operation the first time, or even assisting the first time. Then again, I’ve read current accounts of surgeons going to amputation, and dreading it as well.  Perhaps even with the advancements we have today, this procedure is daunting and as scary in the bright lights of an operating room, than the dim lights of a house, castle basement, or flying hospital.


Reflections on 2011 and onto 2012

Posted By on January 1, 2012

So I was going to finish writing a post that I started a few months ago about amputation (yes, finally), but instead it seems appropriate that on this first day of 2012, I write to you, the reader, about the past year and the coming year.

This past year saw a lot of development and many events for this surgeon reenactor.  I lectured, I was invited to new sites, and gained many new friends, and many new pieces to add to my collection and to my knowledge.  I also was met with many challenges, both personally in pushing myself to keep learning, and in proving myself to others.  Fortunately I’ve met these with the zeal I typically do, and have succeeded in continuing to improve my impression.  I’ve learned more French in the past year than I thought I would, and I’ve even had the opportunity to sing in French with some members of Quebec units.  For that I am extremely grateful.

I’ve travelled up to Ogdensburg again, and as far south as Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina.  In doing so, I’ve gained new friends, and new lessons in packing and planning, in developing the impression to be more pointed to different aspects of the same period in history, and even in speaking to different people on many different aspects of what it is that I do.  One of the most interesting moments I’ve had this year was at Fort La Presentation, where a French Canadian lady thought that I was just a “Sage-femme” or Midwife, and wanted to know how I would use an amputation saw in Midwifery.  It took some time, but Iwas able to convince her that I was more than just a Sage-femme, but I did get to teach her about some aspects of Midwifery I had picked up over time.  Trying to find the proper words for Honey, and Flour, was definitely a challenge, but later on, she brought a friend back and even passed on the information to her!  I had succeeded, and was very happy to have taught someone some good information.  Because that’s what its all about, isn’t it!

One of the things that I have always strived for is the acceptance and respect of the units that I am a part of and associate with regularly. Sometimes this can be tough, because you’re a new person trying something that they haven’t seen before, or that they never thought of needing, or any number of factors.  This year, I was honored by my French Unit, Compagnie Dumas, with gifts from some of the elders of the unit.  My friend J gave me 2 original physic/surgery manuals from 1761 and 1791 respectively, and B, one of the founders of the unit, gave me some documentation on Frater-surgeons, and a copy of the first Encyclopaedia Brittanica (its a reprint that was published in the 1970’s during the bicentennial).  Both of these were majorly humbling to me because the showed me one thing- I’m doing something right.

J’s comment to me when he gave me his gifts was that I’m doing so well with what I’m doing in my impression, and that it was so wonderful to see it.  B is not a man of many words, and was absent when his gift was given to me, but the fact that he passed them onto me is enough to know how much what I’m doing is impressing him.  Other friends have given me books and other items for surgery (M, S, K, R, P, and C to

name just a few), and I am eternally grateful for these things.

So what does 2012 have in store for Doctor Clift?  Well I have already started building my calendar for the year, and I’m happy to say it is just as busy as last year, if not more-so.  I’m very excited by this.  In doing more events though, I want to keep my skills and knowledge up to the pace that I’ve kept in the past. So I am planning on spending more time in study and research mode.  In 2011, I was gifted with a new job, which should allow me more time to do so, and I plan on committing one night a week to studying medicine.  My first focus of the year will be on the doctors of the Jacobite Rebellion, so look forward into hearing a little more about that.  I also plan on getting more french vocabulary together.  It seems as if the majority of my events next year will be French, so it will be good to know the french terminology for medical items.  Plus, I have 4 books currently on French-Canadian medicine during the 18th century which are exclusively in French, so its going to be impossible to escape.

I also promise that I will be more diligent about posting here in my blog- though it may be more about what I’m learning and less event recaps than I had originally intended.  Writing things down helps me retain what I’m learning, I’ve found, and so writing to educate everyone will help a lot.  So I’m aiming for at least 2 posts a month.  And since I have some back articles sitting in drafts, I think I can do ok with that.  If not, feel free to help me by pushing me about it.

So that’s basically it from the Doctor’s Desk at the moment.. except for one thing.

THANK YOU.  Yes, YOU!  For listening to my geeking out about medicine in a long past time period, for giving me books, or leeches, or information, or ads from the Maryland Gazette, for inviting me to events, for helping me with setup and teardown, and for being there to listen to my rants, or for just reading my blog.  Know that I am eternally grateful for all of you, and appreciate every little bit that you do.  So in 2012, my hope for you all is that you have as much fun and acceptance and knowledge as I did in 2011.  And that I see all of you at events in 2012.  Happy New Year!!