Tuesday 16 August 2016

What I Don't Miss About the 50s 7


Illness is generally one’s own fault. (Early 20th century exercise manual)

Disabled children “had to be put away”. Parents were told to forget about them. If a woman had a miscarriage she was told to get pregnant again quickly. And schools for the disabled were intentionally harsh, to “toughen children up to face real life” (according to Ian Dury).

All eye problems were due to lazy eye muscles. You were encouraged not to wear spectacles because your eyes would become dependent on them. Or else short sight was self-inflicted (reading in a bad light). Amblyopia was called “lazy eye”.

There was a lingering belief that pain was either self-inflicted or good for you. Everything could be “controlled” by “willpower”. Pain could be willed away. You could take paracetamol to “fight off” a cold (it doesn’t affect the cold, but makes you feel better), but not to soothe a headache.

When in the 50s Woman’s Hour discussed the menopause, most people approved, but a few wrote in to say that “it is better not to discuss things like the change of life for fear of making people think too much about themselves”. If you “thought about yourself” you might “fancy you were ill”. (Disbelieving anybody who said they felt ill carried on into the 70s and 80s.)

People were said to have “ailments” – because we couldn’t say the words “illness” or “disease”. The ill were just “making a silly fuss” or “neurotic”. It was self-indulgent to be ill. Some people (the wrong kind) enjoyed it. You were supposed to rise above it, or be so strong-minded that you never got ill or suffered pain in the first place. If you were seldom ill, this was due to your superior strength of character. (One of the nuns told us that coughing was an affectation.)

Anyone who thought about their health at all was a “hypochondriac”, who took “patent medicines” or thought there was a “pill for every ill”. They were deciding for themselves that they were ill, instead of waiting for authority – a doctor – to pronounce. (Some people needed permission to think they were ill when they had a temperature of 103.) And they were deciding for themselves to buy something to take the headache away. Surely this couldn’t be allowed? Aspirin was a drug that you could get addicted to. You could never take an aspirin for a headache, in case you got used to it and it wouldn’t work when you really needed it (which time never came).

You couldn’t take anything for diarrhoea because the toxins should be removed naturally from the system. If you put iodine on a boil it would reappear somewhere else on your body. You shouldn’t take antibiotics because doctors overprescribed them (perhaps that came later).

They couldn’t bear to think that you had the means of stopping your headache in your own hand, and could use it whenever you wanted to. They hated to give you your own medication to apply or take yourself. You might have used too much, or taken it in public, revealing your weakness. And there was always some reason why you had to suffer, and some reason why you couldn’t go “Pain? Gone!” “Diarrhoea? Stopped!” “Problem? Sorted!”

Withholding again – yes, there are these effective remedies but there’s always some reason why you can't use them.

Were they too used to a lack of effective drugs? It all made more sense in the days before the NHS, when over-the-counter medicines might be poisonous and addictive.

More here, and links to the rest.

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