by Penny Rogers
Horlicks, or other malted milk drink.
My late father had a perfectly good nose; somewhat large but by no means huge, and triangular in shape. It sort of went straight down without a noticeable bridge.
Dad always maintained that his nose was this shape because of the treatment that he had received for diphtheria, and as this contagious disease features prominently in a series of stories I am writing about France in the early years of the twentieth century I recalled what he had told me about his own experiences.
As a boy of about seven years old - that would have been in 1912/1913 - he contracted diphtheria. My grandfather was in the army stationed on Salisbury Plain and the family lived in the garrison at Tidworth. They were a large family without much money, so when her youngest surviving boy became ill my grandmother did whatever she could to save him. Somehow a horse-drawn ambulance was acquired, and in it Dad made the long journey across the plain to the isolation hospital in Devizes.
Diphtheria destroys healthy tissue in the respiratory system and the dead tissue forms a grey pseudo-membrane in the nose, tonsils, larynx and throat, making it difficult to breathe and to swallow. To clear this obstruction a nurse would hold Dad’s nose to make him keep his mouth open, his head was tipped back and his throat swabbed with Gentian Violet. This sounds extreme now, but before the days of antibiotics the antiseptic qualities of Gentian Violet were extensively used to treat a wide range of bacterial infections. I have read that its use is being re-evaluated in the twenty-first century as medical science searches for alternatives to antibiotics.
The treatment worked and Dad recovered. I believe he was in hospital for some time; he told me that when he was better he was allowed to go outside and watch the horses and the ambulances being cleaned. I guess stables and yards were as much part of the hospital in those days as there would be car parks and garages today.
Until the end of his life Dad could not bear to lie flat nor to have his head tipped back. He slept on several pillows; the terrifying memory of having his head forcibly held back stayed with him for his remaining 90 years. I doubt whether his assertion that his nose was deformed by the treatment is true, as other members of his family had similarly shaped noses.
Gentian Violet was synthesised by a French chemist in 1861 and known originally as Violet de Paris, so I can confidently refer to its use in the treatment of diphtheria during the years before the First World War when my story is set.