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Kill or cure? The perils of nineteenth century medicine

Helen Hartley
8 July 2011
The death of the botanist Henry Trimen in 1896 was said to have 'baffled' his physicians, but evidence uncovered in Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive suggests his doctors may have killed him - accidentally of course!

The 19th century has been described as a time when medicine took a great leap forward: the science of microbiology became firmly established, anaesthetics were developed for surgical procedures, antiseptics were introduced to operating theatres, hospital facilities were improved and nursing became a profession. However, it is also true that in the 19th century many substances - now known to be harmful – were still being used routinely as medicines and were likely to kill, rather than cure a patient.

Henry Trimen

Henry Trimen Esq. (1843 - 1896). The Camp, Sunningdale, December 1, 1892

The Directors' Correspondence collection from Asia contains a series of letters from Henry Trimen, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Ceylon [Peradeniya, Sri Lanka] from 1879 to 1896. During his 16 years in Ceylon, Trimen wrote over 170 letters to Kew, in which he discussed botany, botanical nomenclature, horticulture and the day-to-day business of running the Botanic Gardens. However, Trimen's health suffered greatly in Ceylon and a small proportion of his letters make reference to these issues and the treatments he received to try and relieve his suffering.

Trimen's health problems

Extract of a letter from Henry Trimen to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, describing the treatments he has used to alleviate his eczema [DC 163 f.426-427]

  • Oct 1888:  In a letter to the Director of Kew, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, Trimen complains of an 'eczematous eruption on the inside of the thighs', which made walking painful [DC 163 f.424-425].
  • Nov 1888:  Trimen thanks Thiselton-Dyer, for his hints on eczema, noting that he tried the 'acetate of lead without effect' and is now going in for a 'constitutional treatment' of arsenic and mercury [DC 163 f.426-427].
  • Jan 1894:  Trimen comments on his complete loss of hearing, he has tried inhaling Chloride of Ammonium to no effect and one doctor did nothing but sweat him with pilocarpine[DC 163 f.507-509].
  • March 1895:  Trimen writes that he is desperate for a change, he has lost many teeth, his digestion is poor and he is suffering from cramp and poor coordination [DC 163 f.527-528].
  • March 1896:  Trimen comments on the increase in his 'nervous malady'. He describes himself as more of an invalid than ever, noting that he cannot move across the room without help; he has lost the power in his leg muscles and his bladder irritability is 'very tiresome' [DC 163 f.532].
  • May 1896: Trimen notes that his paralysis is getting worse [DC 163 f.535]: he gets about the garden using a Japanese jinricksha (see image below) and has taken to wearing the native sarong for convenience.

Rickshaws or 'jinrikishas' from Japan, 1897 (Source: Wikimedia commons). Trimen's paralysis forced him to resort to using this mode of transport to get around the Gardens.

Trimen died in October 1896 at the age of 53. An obituary written by Sir William Thiselton-Dyer [RBG Kew Biographical Pamphlet collection: 800 P920], states that the nature of Trimen's malady 'completely baffled his physicians'. With the benefit of hindsight, and from the information contained in Trimen's letters, we can speculate that the deterioration in Trimen's health and his eventual death may actually have been a result of the lead, arsenic and mercury he was given to alleviate his initial problem with eczema.

Toxic heavy metals

Lead, arsenic and mercury are all toxic heavy metals, chronic exposure to which can result in serious health problems. For example, all three heavy metals are known to cause gastrointestinal disorders; lead poisoning can result in retraction of the gums, tooth loss, fatigue, neurophysiological impairment and muscle weakness; arsenic has neurotoxic effects; both arsenic and mercury poisoning can cause hearing loss. Trimen's letters suggest he suffered from all of these symptoms.

Adding insult to injury

Sadly, in his last letter to Kew, dated 30 August 1896 [DC 163 f.539], Trimen describes how his doctors continued to try and relieve his symptoms. Over the previous 10 days a new doctor from Kandy had been treating him: 'with much energy; it has been enemas, catheterizing, starvation, electricity &c without cessation'. Ironically, this intensive approach appears to have given him some respite and he describes himself as 'much improved'.

 - Helen -


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22 August 2011
I am very interested in the lives and work of Henry and Roland Trimen who were my great grandmother's brothers.I have a lot of family history material but have often wondered as to the cause of Henry's death and was fascinated by your interesting article.
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19 July 2011
Modern medicine is not much better. Some day chemotherapy will receive the same scathing.
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11 July 2011
Humility is a lesson life never tires of teaching and that we learn most painfully. How many of our current technologies will be the the subject of future such articles? This was nicely written: not too long but long enough to sketch the picture. Thank you for a good lesson well presented!
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