The Cure for What Ails You

by Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Last spring, the Massachusetts Historical Society acquired a prescription recipe book kept by Charles Lyman Hubbell from 1880 to 1888. In this book, Dr. Hubbell, a physician of Williamstown, Mass. and Troy, N.Y., recorded his own recipes for prescriptions, as well as those he learned from other doctors and medical journals. It’s a very interesting (and sometimes amusing) window into late 19th-century medical history.

notebook, handwritting
Sample pages from the Charles Lyman Hubbell prescription recipe book

Here you’ll find treatments for a wide variety of conditions, organized alphabetically, including acne, anemia, angina pectoris, asthma, bronchitis, cancerous ulcers, catarrh, constipation, consumption, cough, diabetes, diarrhea, diphtheria, dysmenorrhea, dyspepsia, eczema, emphysema, epilepsy, gonorrhea, hair loss, hay fever, headache, heart disease, hernia, itching, neuralgia, night sweats, psoriasis, rheumatism, sciatica, skin disease, tape worm, toothache, and uterine disease.

I have a few favorites. If I look under “F,” for example, I find that the cure for “Feet – Fetid smelling” involves “a solution of Chloral in alcohol and water applied several times a day” or an “application of equal parts Belladonna ointment and glycerine.” One heading that was unfamiliar to me was “Chelsea pensioner,” which Hubbard apparently used as a euphemism for hemorrhoids. And I was intrigued by the page that seems to describe a treatment for “insanity […] cerebral inability & hysterical affection,” though the handwriting is difficult to make out.

Then there’s this:

notebook page, handwritting
One page from the Charles Lyman Hubbell prescription recipe book

The heading on this page made me do a double take. It reads: “Nervous, exhausted & irritable females. Hysterical headache, insomnia &c.” What, you ask, is Hubbell’s remedy? Well, I tried to make sense of the medical abbreviations and apothecarial symbols, but only got as far as: one ounce of calcium bromide mixed with four ounces of…something else. Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet it doesn’t cure this particular “condition”!

I was curious to know more about Hubbell, and I found a smattering of biographical details in published histories of his family, his wife’s family, and Rensselaer County, New York. He was born in 1827, the sixth of seven children of Louisa and Lyman Hubbell. He graduated from Williams College in 1846 and Berkshire Medical College in 1848. In 1852, he married Juliette Bulkeley (or Bulkley), with whom he had six children. And during the Civil War, he served as a surgeon for the Black Horse Cavalry and the 12th New York Infantry.

When he started recording the recipes in this volume, he was in his fifties and had been a practicing physician for decades, as well as a member of numerous medical societies. But he also had other interests. Appearing among the medical recipes are recipes for pickled cabbage, sausage, fertilizer, and harness polish (he was interested in horse racing and breeding).

I uncovered just one other story about Hubbell in my research: the sad circumstances of his death in 1890. According to correspondence digitized and made available at the Sibley Watson Digital Archive, Hubbell died unexpectedly the day before his daughter’s wedding. That archive includes a newspaper obituary of Hubbell and a letter by Elizabeth Sibley of Rochester, N.Y., the second page of which reads:

I have nothing of special interest to write, except that just as the marriage ceremony of Elbridge Adams and Miss Hubbell was to take place, the guests all arrived and everything in readiness, Dr. Hubbell went to his room, threw himself on his bed, and died, before anything could be done for him with heart disease. The marriage took place, only a very few friends present.

Was it not terrible? I can think of nothing more dreadful that could have happened, unless the Bride or groom had been taken.

Charles Lyman Hubbell was 63 years old. He’s buried with his wife at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, N.Y.