The Flux

Historical documents are often formal papers written by officials and preserved by the state. Much of what we know about St. Martin’s history comes from records like these. Private documents, like letters and journals, are often lost over the generations. When they are available, they can open a whole new window into the past.

A small book from the 1800s preserved by Pierre Beauperthuy is one of these treasures. It contains many recipes for medicinal cures, and other knowledge that the author found important. It told us not only how illnesses were treated, but also the materials and techniques available.

Pages from a notebook detailing a treatment for the flux.

The flux was a term for dysentery commonly used in the 1800s. The disease itself is an intestinal infection, often caused by Shigella bacteria. People were usually infected by drinking contaminated water or unrefrigerated milk. The disease usually causes severe diarrhea.

The treatment for flux is one of the most complex treatments recorded in the book. It starts by giving the patient “Emetic of Ipacacuana” which is essentially syrup of ipecac. This would induce vomiting, presumably to get the sickness out of the body. This was a common step in treating any disease of the digestive system.

Starting the next day, the patient would receive two medicines. During the daytime, they were given a powder three times a day. This powder was made from cream of tartar, rhubarb and ipecacuana. At night, the patient was to receive a pill made from opium and ipecacuana. Tartar and rhubarb were typically used as laxatives, and opium is a pain reliever.

An illustration of intestines with dysentery. (C. Batelli, 1843)

Could such a cure be beneficial? Probably not. Since dysentery is an infection of the intestines, particularly the colon, vomiting probably only increased the level of dehydration. The instructions even include a special note to avoid giving the patient the powder right after eating, “as they may sicken, which is not the intention.”

Laxatives are a strange choice to treat a patient that already has diarrhea. They could make dehydration even worse Opium would help for pain, but also slows down the digestive system, which is not recommended.

Though the medicines might not be great, but there were other instructions: “the patient should avoid eating any vegetable whatever, their diet should be dry and nutritive, the waters previously boiled and cooled.” Boiling water would make it safe to drink, and avoid reinfecting the patient. Rice or barley water were also recommended, which also seems helpful. It also warns “the use of milk to be avoided” and “the patient kept from damp or cold.”

The flux was common at the time, so it makes sense to find a detailed treatment in this book. Patients that stayed hydrated and didn’t get reinfected also had a good chance at recovery. This may be another reason why the treatment is so detailed. Perhaps it reflects a process of trial and error in developing and refining this method. By comparing this treatment to others from the same era, it might be possible to find out which parts were from medical training and which were developed on St. Martin.

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