Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A careful, kind and intelligent reader asked me why, in Black Hawk, I used the word 'antiseptic' long before the germ theory and why Justine dissolved her antiseptic in liquid and packed it in bottles.  Why not just send the powder along on these expeditions.

(Jo clears her throat) and says 'THANK YOU' for caring enough to wonder about this.

And I haz  reasons (excuses):

As to the word 'antiseptic'. Millennia ago, long before they understood the mechanism by which it worked, folks knew some stuff discouraged infection. By mid-C18 folks had a word for that and it's the same one we use today. Antiseptic. The OED gives us a 1751 "Myrrh in a watery menstruum was 12 times more antiseptic than salt water."

The writer's problem is that 'antiseptic' sounds very modern.

So I sat for a while pondering whether I should use it. This is classic historical writer dilemma and one of the things that drives sensitive souls to drink -- coffee if not brandy, anyway. 'Historical Word Problem' hits me three, four times a book.
But antiseptic is a couple generations prior to date-of-story, so I went ahead and laid it down.

I also considered the vexed question of which medications would be carried as mix-it-yourself powders and which would be aqueous solutions or tincture-of-this-and-that. It seemed to me the choice depended on the exactness with which the solution must be prepared and how quickly the solution would be needed when called for.

I posited that Justine's mixture takes a good long while to go into solution -- thus the boiling water -- and is likely to be needed PDQ, if needed at all. Bottled at the source, it can be used immediately. Prepared In the field, it would need hot water and a long while to dissolve.  This is the same reason a modern first aid kit intended for use in the outback would have its antiseptic in liquid, ready to use, form. 
Justine includes one bottle for immediate use and also the powder for mixing a further supply.

I have her dissolve in water rather than alcohol because this is a water-soluble powder. Oddly, I find no indication folks thought of alcohol as antiseptic in 1800. It may just be I haven't researched it enough.

Carrying liquids could feel a little 'off' to the reader for several reasons. I think it's because liquid is heavy. Some part of our mind is reluctance to see clunky bottles of liquid cumbering up a medical kit that has to be carried through the jungles of Borneo or wherever.

The medical cases of the era were heavy.


  1. I suspect this is the sort of thing which prompts authors to write Notes at the end of their books! "Antiseptic" does sound terribly modern.

  2. Yep. When I was looking for something for Justine to put in bottles I kinda liked the idea of it being an antiseptic.

    'What did they call antiseptic in 1800?' I asks myself.
    'Antiseptic,' I finds out.

  3. I haven't seen it either. Will ask my medical history geek what he's seen ...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. When I come across a questionable word -- I go to Google Advanced Book search and narrow down to books in my era of interest.
      Say 1790-1830.
      That tells me not only was the word used, but I get a feeling for how it was used and where and by whom.

  5. My pet medical historican says first documented experiments with spirits were during the American Civil War. Wine as an,antiseptic goes back to the Ancient Greeks, though.

  6. He also says the period use of antiseptic is more about disease and less about wounds.

  7. EVERYONE should have a pet medical historian.

    I didn't even know about the civil war wound cleansing with alcohol -- thought that makes sense. Lots of chance for innovation.

  8. Anonymous10:00 PM

    Thanks. I had the same question.
    Honey was recognized as a healing agent as early as 2500 BC and was rediscovered as an antiseptic and healing agent for burns during WWI.
    Iodine was discovered in 1811 and was being used as an antiseptic by 1839 and possibly before.

    1. I will have to look for a list of what was in these medical kits circa 1800 if I use one of them again in a story. Then I can have someone going down the bottles, mentally naming them. It'd be interesting.

      Most of these kits extant with bottles are Victorian, alas.