Central Ohio is a healthier place than it once was.

Central Ohio is a healthier place than it once was.

How unhealthy was this part of the world a couple of centuries ago? It was very unhealthy indeed.

In one of the earliest written histories of Ohio, pioneer historian Caleb Atwater noted: "In the autumn of 1806, a fever of the remittent type made its appearance, extending from the Ohio River on the south to Lake Erie on the north. Its symptoms were chills in the forenoon, between ten and eleven o'clock, which were succeeded by violent fever afterward in an hour and a half. The fever continued to rage until about six o'clock in the evening. During the exacerbation great pain or depression was felt in the brain, liver, spleen or stomach, and frequently in all of these organs. The sweating stage took place about midnight. By daylight there was a respite, but not a total exemption from the urgency of these symptoms. This was the common course of the disease "

This disease passed quickly, at least, its victims weakened but alive. Such was not the case with some of the other local afflictions. One of the most terrifying was the "milk sickness," unique to the Midwest -- Indiana and Ohio in particular -- and was the killer of the mother of Abraham Lincoln. It was caused by drinking diseased milk. Later it was discovered the cause was the consumption by cows of the white snakeroot plant.

"Its most prominent symptoms were, first, a sense of uncommon lassitude, and a listlessness and aversion to muscular motion. A slight pain about the ankles, which gradually seemed to ascend the calves of the legs, and, in a few hours more, a dull pain, which soon terminated in a spasm, or a cramp of the stomach. This was quickly followed by violent efforts to vomit, which continued for four, five, six or seven days, until death closed the scene "

Unlike the attacks of cold, flu and other maladies that, in our own time, strike hardest in the winter months, the most violent attacks of the "cold ague," the "shaking ague" or the "bilious fever" came during the summer and early fall.

Writing of the coming of fever in 1823, a local writer remembered many years later that a "great June freshet overflowed and saturated the country when in the full flush of a luxuriant vegetation, and the hot sun of July and the decaying matters ushered in a season of unparalleled sickness and deadly fevers."

The fevers of 1823 and 1824 carried off Lucas Sullivant, the founder of frontier Franklinton, and John Kerr, one of the original proprietors of Columbus. It also caused the death of Joseph Vance, who helped lay out the capital city, and Barzilla Wright, the warden of the penitentiary. Frontier fevers were no respecters of place or position.

Many people simply did not know how to treat these maladies.

"At first the physicians treated the bilious fevers with bleeding and physic, but not very successfully. Dr. Turney, a Chillicothe physician, departed from the common practices, allowed his patients to eat all they wanted, gave them as much brandy as they could drink and generally cured his cases. Within a day or two after a rain, a green scum gathered on all of the ponds in the village."

But even with some success in treatment, the fevers could still be devastating. In a series of letters Betsy Green Deshler, an early settler, wrote back to relatives in the East about the terrible summer of 1823 in central Ohio.

"On a small stream called Darby, about 18 miles from here, there are scarcely enough well people to bury the dead. In one instance a mother was compelled to dig a grave and bury her own child in a box that was nailed up by herself, without one soul to assist her. Only think of it. Another case was that of a man, his wife and four children who had settled three miles from any other house. The father, mother, and all took sick, and not one was able to hand another a drink of water or make their situation known. At length a man in search of his horse happened to call at the house to enquire, and found a dead babe four days gone in the cradle, the other children dying, the father insensible and the mother unable to raise her head from the pillow.

" In numbers of families, all have died, not one member remaining. A person a few days ago passed a house, a short distance from town, out of which they were just taking a corpse. One of the men told him there were three more to be buried the next morning, and a number sick in the same house."

And the sickness continued. In fall 1824, she wrote to her mother, "You have no idea what a scene of trouble and sickness we have passed through the last four months. George was sick five weeks with bilious fever, and never walked a step in four weeks." In spring 1826, she wrote to her brother. "Every body in this town has been severely afflicted with influenza. Some few have died, but the prevalence of the disease has abated. I have three darling children in the graveyard we have two here."

In the fall of that same year, she wrote that the fevers had finally left. "Our town is quite healthy and very lively."

On Aug. 2, 1827, Betsy Green Deshler was buried by her husband, David Deshler, 10 weeks after the birth of her son, William. She was 30 years old.

A later writer noted of Betsy Green Deshler, "Yet her life, albeit so unpretentious and inconspicuous, failed not of enduring results. With such mothers as she to give birth to the architects of her civilization, it is not strange that Ohio has won her present distinction in the family of states."

I sometimes enclose a picture with these stories. There is no known image of Betsy Green Deshler. Her words suffice.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.