The Smith family, in Lebanon, New Hampshire were not exempt from the epidemic of Typhoid Fever that broke out in the early nineteenth century. Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of the family, records that her “oldest daughter, Sophronia, who was sick four weeks; next Hyrum came from Hanover sick with the same disease; then, Alvin, my oldest, and so on until there was not one of my family left well…”
Typhoid Fever often strikes fast and hard. Not treated in time it will lead to death. It is a disease spread by the bacteria Salmonella Typhi and Salmonella Paratyphi, which is spread through food and drink. Once catching the illness, first signs include a high fever and stomach pains. Some people affected get rashes and loss of appetite.
Treatment for this disease is often hydration and rest. There is a vaccine for it now, and death from it is rare in developed countries. However, in the early 1800’s, the United States was far from fully-developed and Typhoid was a serious illness. Due to the lack of knowledge in the medicine world on this illness, there was not much that could be done.
All the Smith children had the disease and it seemed to pass from them in time. Joseph’s oldest sister, Sophronia, had a serious case, but it subsided in 3-4 weeks. The rest of the children’s illnesses passed without complications. However, Joseph, after the illness seemed to be gone from his body, began to feel shoulder pains. Diagnosed with as a sprained shoulder, the docter gave Joseph ointment and told him to rest. Joseph disagreed with the doctor, saying he had not injured his shoulder, but they listened to the doctor and used the ointment for a time. After a time the pain proved to be from swelling under the arm. The parents of the Smith family called back the doctor who then opened up the skin where the swelling was and the infected liquid drained out of his arm.
This did not cure the illness either. Joseph wrote, “the disease removed and desended into my leg and ancle and terminated in a fever sore of the worst kind.” At this point the disease affected the leg bone. This is known as osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone. All the doctors that came to visit, Joseph said there were eleven, asked for his consent to amputate his leg. This was the cure to this particular complication of Typhoid. However, a doctor came to the Smith home, Dr. Nathan Smith, agreed to try a medical experiment to save Joseph’s leg. This experiment included cutting open the leg, cutting out the diseased portion of the bone, and stitching up the leg again hoping the healthy portions of the leg would be strong enough to heal the leg fully.
For a dampener on the pain, the doctor suggested the eight-year-old Joseph drink of alcohol. To this the boy refused. In addition, the boy also refused to allow the doctors to tie him down to the bed, as Doctor Smith suggested because the surgery required absolute stillness. Joseph told the doctor that if he could be held by his father that he would not move until the surgery was completed.
Throughout the surgery Joseph did just as he promised. Held firm in the hands of his father, Joseph Sr., young Joseph Jr. held still enough for the surgery to take place. This did not dampen the pain, however. His mother, who was outside the house many yards away at his request, ran back in after she could not bear to hear her son scream any longer. Once in the room Joseph plead with his mother that she would again leave the room so she would not have to see him in this state. Again, Lucy Mack Smith entered the room after hearing her son’s screams, and again she was led out of the room.
Due to the miraculous efforts of Dr. Smith and Dr. Stone, Joseph’s surgery went smoothly, and, in time, his leg healed completely. For the rest of his life he walked with a very slight limp, but he no longer had pains or complications with the leg.
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