Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Steel-Water and Florence Oil

Augustus d'Este (1794-1848), a cousin of Queen Victoria, is considered to be the first confirmed case of  Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an inflammatory disease affecting the myelin sheaths which surround the brain and spinal cord. It was formally described for the first time in 1868 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.

Jean-Martin Charcot (Wikipedia)
From 1822 to 1846 d'Este kept a fascinating diary (which  was discovered in 1948) of his symptoms and of the various treatments that he underwent. He suffered from weakness in his hands and legs, numbness, dizziness, tremors and periods of impaired vision. Though he was confined to a wheelchair by the 1840s, d'Este remained cheerful and optimistic about life. I had never heard of him before, and was fascinated to learn about the types of early MS treatment that d'Este endured. For example, d'Este was regularly dosed with steel-water and Florence oil - neither of which I'd ever heard of, even though I have often written about Victorian patent medicines on my history blog.

Steel-water was a kind of mineral water that was used both internally and externally to treat "chronic inflammations of the eyes and eyelids" [Thomas Jameson, A treatise on Cheltenham waters and bilious diseases, 1809, p. 139]. The mineral composition of steel water is given here in an 1882 book about mineral waters - the "steel" probably refers to its iron and carbon content, as iron and carbon are the main components of steel.

And Florence oil? That was simply a type of olive oil, imported from (where else?) Florence - "a very fine kind," too, according to the London Medical Gazette in 1837. In the early 19th century, it was used as a remedy for arthritis or joint pain, which is probably what d'Este took it for.

D'Este's meals were not typical of a modern Multiple Sclerosis diet - d'Este's physician, a Dr. Kent, advised him to eat beef steak twice a day and drink plenty of  "London Porter and Sherry and Madeira wine."* MS patients today would eat very differently: the protein in the steak would be fine, but today one would want to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, avoid caffeine and alcohol (so no porter, sherry or Madeira!) and also have some fish and whole grains too.

I've always enjoyed reading biographies, letters and diaries of famous (and not so famous) people. I have put d'Este's diary on my reading list: I look forward to learning more about his difficult life, and the cheer that he managed to sustain through it.

*Murray, T.J.  Multiple Sclerosis: The History of a Disease (2005), pp. 35-7.

Additional Source:
London Medical Gazette; or Journal of Practical Medicine, Volume 20 (1837) p. 376.

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