Dr. Walter Harris’s Methods of Treating Deathly Ill Children (Folger MS W.a.87)

By Victoria Kuhr

If your child was knocking at death’s door, wouldn’t you want to do everything in your power to cure them, even if the treatments were potentially dangerous? Folger MS W.a.87 (early 18th century) shows the great lengths parents went to cure their children of serious ailments. With several pages detailing strong purges for children based on Galenic theories of evacuative medicine, Folger MS W.a.87 is important because it records invasive treatments that were losing popularity in the mid- to late-17th century.

The recipes for purges in this manuscript are modeled after the treatments the eminent physician Dr. Walter Harris (1647-1732) used on his young patients. These include purges of children who were “pale,” “refused any kinds of Nourishment,” and suffered from “Vomitings, greene stooles, & gripnings [sic]” (Folger MS W.a.87., fol. 106, 108, 109). A prominent member of the Royal College of Physicians and frequent critic of Paracelsan and Helmontian medicine, Dr. Harris wrote De morbis acutis infantum (1689), translated into English as A Treatise of the Acute Diseases of Infants (1693),in which he records his observations of many seriously ill children successfully treated by his methods. Several of Dr. Harris’s observations were copied into manuscript W.a.87; several other pages of this manuscript seem to be translated or paraphrased from Harris’s work.

A Chile, 10 mounts ole breeding teeth, fall into a Losensse

& had 40 or 50 Stooles in a day, & was almost dead. I gaue her

dose of pouder, whith cousisted cheifly of Chalk & Coral, [e]ach

20 graines every fourth hour att l[e]ast, but in the begininning

I gaue itt oftner, till the Violence should abate; On the

third day I cleansed her body wh​​ith a Rubarb purge,

I repeated the same pouders 2 days more & reneued the

purges, & She was perfectly Cured.

(W.a.87, fol. 110, 150409).


In this observation, (also found on pages 122-124 of A Treatise of the Acute Diseases of Infants) Harris’s purge seemed to save the life of the ten-month-old child. Harris’s frequent administration of the dangerous powders contrasts with, for example, gentler purges attributed to Dr. Lour (possibly Dr. Richard Lower) in the cookbook of Hester Denbigh. Dr. Lour recommends giving medicine only “once in two days or twice in a day if need be” (NYPL Whitney MS 11, fol. 20).

The general procedure for purging children, recommended by Harris, is as follows:

The Evening before you give the purge, lett the Chile have

a Glyster of Milk and Sugar with a few grains of Salt.

If the Chile bee not restored to health & ease, Rest a day

and then give the pouders againe, as before, two days, & then

Give another purge then rest a day _ and so repeate the

pouders & purgnig 4, 5, or 6 times if need requires / –

(Folger MS W.a.87, fol 104, 150406)

This basic procedure is modified by Harris to suit the children’s different symptoms.

Purges were still common in the eighteenth century, but the purges Harris describes are only for worst-case scenarios in children whose last resort depended on an intensive cycle of clysters, powders, and cordials, followed by a day or two of rest. Although the powders vary based on the symptoms, they include ingredients such as crab claws, oyster shells, bezoar stone, similar to recipes for Gascoigne’s powder found in many recipe books (fol. 100-101). These ingredients helped to absorb the excess moisture which Harris believed was endemic to children: “The Nature of Children is moist and all Moisture is apt to degenerate into Sournesse” (W.a.87, fol. 100).

Other physicians believed the delicate nature of children would make routine preventative purges inadvisable which is no doubt why these recipes repeatedly stress the need for safety. Practitioners of chemical medicine thought it was important to find treatments that reduced a child’s discomfort level, instead of providing treatments that induced more pain. Gentler treatments included bathing infants in wine and stimulating a bowel movement by rubbing the stomach (Astury 87). According to historian of medicine Hannah Newton, “Johann Dolaus cautioned that ‘Children cannot bear Purging’” (70).  But when it comes to acute and potentially deadly illnesses, the author of W.a.87 copies Harris’s claim of “uspeakable [sic] Successe in Curing Children by purging Only which I practiced 7 years togeather” (Folger MS W.a.87, fol. 100). Practitioners may have considered all other options before intentionally putting a child’s body through further pain. However, when parents are desperate, these concerns may go out the window.

Physicians, such as Dr. Harris, and parents with a deathly sick child deemed purging and other invasive treatments appropriate. Physicians and parents no doubt worried about children’s fragile bodies suffering extra trauma, but the medical histories found in Folger MS W.a.87 showed very dire situations. The illnesses observed by Dr. Harris were in fact any parent’s worst nightmare. This manuscript is important evidence that parents could have reason to trust in seemingly dangerous purges that were disfavored by other physicians if it meant their children getting well again.  

Victoria Kuhr is a junior English major at Mount St. Mary’s College. She did this  research for the Mount’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program with Professor Rob Wakeman.

Works Cited

Astbury, Leah. “‘Ordering the infant’: caring for infants in early modern England.” In Conserving Health in Early Modern Culture: Bodies and Environments in Italy and England. Ed. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey. Manchester University Press, 2017. 80-103.

Harris, Walter. A treatise of the acute diseases of infants. To which are added, medical observations on several grievous diseases. Written originally in Latin by the late learned Walter Harris, M.D. Fellow of the College of Physicians at London, and Professor of   Chirurgery in the same College. Translated into English by John Martyn, F.R.S.           Professor of Botany in the University of Cambridge. London, 1742. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. New York Public Library. 25 May 2018

Newton, Hannah. The Sick Child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720. Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 2012.

Folger MS W.a.87, early eighteenth century

NYPL Whitney MS 11, Cookbook of Hester Denbigh, 1700

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