“[My cold] runs so quick, that I defy any one to catch it”: ‘man ‘flu’ in the nineteenth century

At this time of year it seems almost impossible to escape catching some form of cold, cough or flu.  You might think of “man ‘flu” as a modern idea but some 200-year-old correspondence in the Archives shows that there was at least one young Lord who was out for all the sympathy he could get…  

In January 1808 Henry Temple wrote to his sister Frances to complain about the heavy cold from which he was suffering. At the time of writing he was 24 years old and Conservative M.P. for Newport on the Isle of Wight. He had already succeeded to the title Viscount Palmerston as his father had died six years previously.  Later in his political career, Palmerston was for many years Foreign Secretary and then, in the 1850s and 60s, Prime Minister.

Palmerston-1801

Sketch of Palmerston aged 17

In his letter he contemplates whether an offended god might have transformed him into a fountain “for my eyes and nose appear to communicate with reservoirs as copious as those which feed the seven mouths of the Nile” and suggests that the Queen [Charlotte] might not be partial to a “drawing Rheum”.

My dear Fanny,

I cannot see to write you a long letter for since the night before last I have been a complete Democritus  and have been incessantly occupied in weeping – not the misery of man, but the coldness of the weather.  If you were to see me you would instantly believe in the metamorphoses recounted by Ovid, and imagine that some offended Deity had changed me into a fountain; for my eyes and nose appear to communicate with reservoirs as copious as those which feed the seven mouths of the Nile, and my one mouth would very soon be inundated, if I were to follow Philip Francis’s receipt and lock up all my handkerchiefs.  However my cold though violent is not oppressive and though I cannot read much I have had some visitors yesterday and to day, whose society I have enjoyed the more as I did not entertain any apprehension of communicating to them my disorder, for though colds are said to sometimes be infectious, mine runs so quick, that I defy any one to catch it. Perhaps you will wonder how I came by it, but the fact is that though some how or other I headed it I could not stop it.  I hope however to get quit of so troublesome a companion before the drawing-room; as the Queen might not be so partial to a drawing Rheum, and it would  not do for Lord of the Adm’ty to address the Prince with the same request made to him by young Nollekens.

[Letter from Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, Albany, to his sister Frances Temple, 16 January 1808 MS 62/BR24/8/2]

Palmerston might have looked back through the family archive for some remedies. His great grandfather, also Henry Temple, the first Viscount Palmerston, kept volumes – likewise preserved in the Special Collections – in which he chronicled a variety of information. He records not only his financial accounts but also family records and medicinal recipes. They include a “linctus by Sir Hans Sloane” and remedies for rheumatism, gout, and “mad dog” bites among others.

Palmerston in late life

Palmerston in later life

There is a remedy for a “dry old cough” containing syrup of horehound, syrup of coltsfoot, honey, oil of turpentine, diapente, sugar candy, balsam of sulphur, syrup of sugar, elecampane, aniseeds and liquorish.  [MS 62/BR2/1]  As this remedy was recommended for horses Palmerston may have deemed it unsuitable.   Medical and veterinary practices were more closely  aligned at this time, however, and the same volume does contain a recipe for a cold ointment for strains “in horse or man”.

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