(Okay, right off the bat, I’m going to admit that the title of this blog post is link bait. But it worked, right? You’re here? Sorry, “the kink” is probably not what you think it is–keep reading to find out more!)
I live in Southern Oregon, a region with the dubious distinction of having dangerously low rates of immunization against childhood diseases.
As a writer/researcher with an interest in the history of science and medicine, I have a hard time listening to anti-vaccination arguments. One only needs to skim the historical record to find gruesome descriptions of childhood diseases like diphtheria, smallpox, and measles to know that vaccinations are one of the great mercies of modern parenting.
One of the most horrific of the childhood diseases, whooping cough (pertussis), is a particular nemesis here in Southern Oregon. While the average rate of vaccination exemptions for kindergarteners in the state is 5%, there are population pockets in my region where the rate is closer to 25%, which effectively decimates any chance of herd immunity to pertussis.
This public health threat in my own region must be why, when one of the main characters in my novel-in-progress encounters a deathly pediatric disease, I thought of whooping cough rather than plague or smallpox. My protagonist’s husband,Will, the son of a non-University-trained doctor in the town of Colchester in the 17th century, sees a young mother seeking help for her infant, who has a distinctive, tortured coughing pattern (you can hear an example here). Will listens in horror as his father gives the dreaded diagnosis: chincough.
In the early modern period, whooping cough (pertussis) went by a variety of names: chincough, hooping cough, the kink, kinkcough, kingcough, and quinta were just a few.
An aside: The word “kinkcough” and its variations derive from the obsolete word “kink” (Middle English origins), which meant convulsive fits of laughing or coughing. Helpful hint: Do NOT wonder if this meaning of “kink” is the root of the word “kinky” and then Google it only to realize that your computer is still logged on to your daughter’s Google account—her SCHOOL Google account. Just don’t. (Although when I ‘fessed up to my middle-school daughter, she laughed and said, “Oh please, Mom, it’s just word origins. I see kids at middle school Google worse stuff than that every day.” Gulp.)
Okay, back to whooping cough.
As for almost every condition in the early modern period, cures for pertussis varied greatly by practitioner, from simply drinking cold water (p. 113), to (from folklore) “begging a piece of bread- and-butter from a married woman who had not changed her surname on marriage.” There are recipes that involve herbs to those involving unfortunate animals, such as this recipe from the recipe book of Jane Jackson (1642), in which the following helpful advice is given:
“Take mice flea them & cut them in halves take out the entrails and fry them in butter to eat them up.”
In the 18th century, some practitioners evidenced a laissez-faire attitude to whooping cough. In his “Animadversions on a late treatise on the kink-cough” Thomas Kirkland references one “Dr. Willis’s” observation that “old women are oftner consulted in this disorder than physicians,” since, as Kirkland explains, “people seldom apply to physicians, on account of the expence, as they do not apprehend danger, and they know the disease will commonly get well of itself in time.” (This does not, however, stop Kirkland recommending the use of hemlock in every single variation of whooping cough he lists.)
In my novel, we never find out what happens to that young child Will’s father treats, but based on primary sources, there was likely a treatment of purges and nasty medicinals followed by months of horrific fits of coughing like this (warning: upsetting):
And that, my friends, is why my children are vaccinated against pertussis. Now if I could only find a way to protect them from middle school Google searches…
Click here for downloadable pdf of Robert Weston’s excellent article on the history of pertussis, “Whooping Cough: A Brief History to the 19th Century.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/ Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine / Volume 29:2 2012 / p. 329-349