This summer, I asked my neighbor, still vigorous in her late 70’s–entirely lucid and not in any way inclined to distorting truth–if she had any personal stories about the Great Basin Rattlesnake, common locally. She replied that her older brother as a boy had been bitten by a rattlesnake in the 1930’s, at her old family home nearby, and had barely survived.
It seems that after a storm he found a fallen bird’s nest in the hollow of a partially decomposed tree limb blown to the ground. He stuck his hand in to retrieve the nest and felt something “hit” him, tried again and got hit twice more. It transpired that a rattler had staked an interest in the bird’s nest, and, unseen in the litter nearby, had taken offence at the attempt to retrieve it.
Bitten three times, and with no local doctors, his poor, rural family took him to a nearby Depression-era CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp, hoping to find someone with medical experience. They found a man with a background in homeopathy: the use of a dilute amount of a poisonous substance to counteract the effects of another–a bit like drinking a beer to cure a Tequila hangover. [See Wiki for a proper description of “the law of similars,” and of “curing like with like.”]
With the boy’s arm badly swollen by now, the practitioner spent days administering dilute doses of Strychnine–rat poison–to offset the effect of the rattlesnake venom. It was what he knew and had available, my neighbor told me.
Oddly, the boy recovered, being young and strong (the Great Basin rattler is generally small and not unduly venomous as rattlesnakes go, as I understand it), and he even went on to serve with distinction in WW II, though his sister told me he forever after had “a weak heart.”
Thanks for posting the link to James Randi. Very interesting, well-explained, and even worse than I thought as a treatment theory.
Last year I read a book about the great influenza pandemic of 1918, in which was described the beginnings of modern medicine in the United States, of scientific method and laboratory experiment. I was surprised to discover that even in the early 20th Century some older American doctors were practicing an “old” style of medicine based on body “humors” [base fluids: blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile] with some imbalance of them as the cause for disease. This only really changed, says the book, as modern medical schools came up to speed in the early 20th century.
My grandmother, born in 1884, advised me as a child, with great sincerity, to stay away from doctors if I possibly could, as once they got their hands on you it was curtains for sure. She herself was once treated with a spoonful of Kerosene for a bad sore throat by her alarmed mother, who thought it might be Diphtheria, and had read 19th century newspaper accounts that heroic use of this medicine had saved lives at the last moment.
In your grandmother’s day, that was likely true. If you were bad off enough to need a doctor, there wasn’t a lot they could really do, and there were a lot of things they could do to mess you up worse in the name of helping.
Thinking of the triumphs of the 20th century, I had to reflect on medicine and medical services. We went from the beginning of the 20th century where doctors didn’t have a lot they could do to the end of the 20th century, where you expect the doctor to cure you, and get upset if he can’t.
Bob and Bill were hiking in the woods one afternoon. Bob was getting tired and sat down on a big rock. Bob didn’t look down before sitting. Unfortunately for Bob, there was a large rattler sunning himself. Bob was immediately bitten on the derriere, but he was able to keep a cool head:
“Bill, about a mile back, we passed a general store. Run back there and call the Poison Control Center and tell them what happened.”
Bill immediately ran back down the trail, found the general store, and called the Poison Control Center.
“Hello, this is the Poison Control Center. How may I help you”, said the voice on the other end of the phone.
Bill immediately told the person on the other end exactly what happened: “My friend and I wore walking down the trail and he got bit by a rattlesnake.”
“Okay”, said the person on the other end of the phone. “Listen to me very carefully. We’re going to send an ambulance down and take your friend to the hospital, but it will take a while. In the mean time, you must follow my directions very carefully, or else your friend could die. You need to remove all clothing from the area, make two small incisions, and then use your mouth to suck out the poison. You need to do this immediately because your friend could die before the ambulance gets there.”
Bill rushed back down the trail to his friend Bob.
Bob was not doing very well. He was weak and pale. With a gasping breath, Bob asked his friend, “What did they tell you.”
My great-grandmother was bitten by a copperhead while hoeing in her garden around 1918. She cut off the snake’s head with the hoe, cut a slice of skin from the snake, and put it over the wound then tied it on. I suspect that her subsequent recovery was more due to the fact that some snakes don’t envenomate you fully every time they bite you than any healing properties of a snake’s skin.
I’ve read that the copperhead’s venom is not as strong as that of rattlesnakes & cottonmouths, and that adult human fatalities are rare, even without anti-venom treatment. I’ll bet it still hurts like hell though.