Throat Distemper

By interpreting “Distemper” to mean ‘disease’, we can deduce that this is most likely one of a few different forms of sore throat common to children and young adults.  In contemporary medicine, a sore throat is something that often goes with minimal treatment other than alleviation of symptoms until its totally recedes.  During Colonial years, diseases similar to sore throat had the potential of being much more severe if not deadly.  This is probably due to the lack of inoculation programs at the time, which is of course a normal part of colonial history in the North American Colonies (popularized in the 1720s, inoculation was just beginning to be tested about this time in North America, mainly in Boston, and then only for small pox).

Colden wrote about his experience with such an epidemic in Kingston, NH [New York?], in 1735 (see  ).  This happened more than 20 years earlier, and so some of his explanation of this epidemic comes about due to a better understanding of disease patterns that he had developed by focusing on topography, climate, weather, people, humidity, temperature, and wind flow patterns in relation to diseases.  Note how in this article he is fairly concise in defining whether or not the disease was brought in by people or, as he sees it, came as a result of local environmental features.


There are several possible “Throat distempers” Colden could have witnessed.   The worst form, diphtheria, struck people of all ages and so is probably not the form that he is talking about.  Mumps may have been an option as well, based on the ages impacted, but the swelling expected just is not there.  Quincy is a form of severe throat infection in which there is a tonsillitis, and in severe cases a penetration of throat mucosal and neck tissues.  These could have been severe quincy cases, a simple tonsillitis or adenoiditis, or the plain sore throat that people suffer often from one year to the next.  However, we can rule out the latter duie to the exceptionally bad cases for 1735.  This could be the streptococcus + disease, of an exceptionally bad strain that year, a condition we are often tested for whenever we see a physician and have a sore throat.

Special Notes

1.  He mentions his trial of the Bark (Cinchona) or Peruvian Bark, which was used “without success.”  This fits the paradigm, since cinchona (quinine) will only eliminate a fever in cases of Malaria.  The use of diaphoretics is more fitting for breaking a fever–in Colden’s case, based on the materia medica of his writings, he probably would have employed either chamomile or boneset (Eupatorium) for this.

2.  Written in 1755/6, this note from Colden was produced at about the same time he was in conversation with physicians about the issues regarding the inoculation of small pox individuals.  This is inferred by the comments in the past paragraph.

3.  Note also the mention of Serpentaria in this writing–the Virginia Snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria).  This was not the local Snakeroot plant (that was either Asclepias tuberosa-Pleurisy Root/Butterfly Weed, Asarum canadense-Wild Ginger, Cimicifuga racemosa-Black Snakerootwhich Colden called Aralia racemosa in his published writings, or Polygala senega-Seneca Snakeroot).