The tetanus vaccine was developed in 1924 by P. Descombey. Without vaccine or modern treatments, one in four people died from the disease. My mother and I suspect my great-great grandfather died from tetanus. He hit himself in the foot with an axe while working out in the fields. A month later he was dead.
Tetanus is caused by spores of the bacteria C. tetani that live in the soil, saliva, dust and manure. In inactive spore form, C. tetani may remain infectious in soil for more than 40 years.
Tetanus infection begins when the spores enter the body through an injury or wound. The spores release bacteria that spread and make a poison called tetanospasmin. This poison blocks nerve signals from the spinal cord to the muscles. This causes severe muscle spasms.
Muscular spasms in a patient suffering from tetanus.
Painting by Sir Charles Bell, 1809.(public domain)
Tetanus symptoms often begin with mild spasms in the jaw muscles (lockjaw). Other symptoms include spasm of the vocal cords and/or spasms of the respiratory muscles causing interference with breathing. Complications include fractures of the spine or long bones from stiff muscles, elevated blood pressure, abnormal heartbeats, coma, generalized infection, clotting in the blood vessels of the lung, and pneumonia. Lack of oxygen caused by muscle spasms in the throat can lead to irreversible brain damage.
The time between infection and the first sign of symptoms is typically 7 to 21 days.
Here are treatments from the Ladies Indispensable Assistant (1850). Although some of the herbs in the elixir and powder have antibacterial and antispasmodic affects, I wonder how effective the treatments really were.
If the wound be occasioned by running a nail or something of the kind into the foot or hand, let the parts be well soaked in weak lye, and keep them bound up until the sore is quite healed; or,
When there is any appearance of the disease, let the patient take one table-spoonful of elixir (see below) in a wine-glassful of hot water. If this does not allay the symptoms, give the patient a thorough lobelia emetic. If the jaws become locked before the emetic is given, let the patient take half a table-spoonful of the tincture of lobelia seeds, and fill the spoon up with the elixir; and if the jaws are closed tight, put the above on one side of the mouth, and let it run down by the sides of the teeth and cheek; it will soon find way to the root of the tongue, will relax the muscles, and the mouth will open without any force; and in fifteen minutes repeat the does, giving, in half an hour afterwards, one tea-spoonful of vegetable powders (see below) in a tea-cupful of pennyroyal tea, this causes the patient to vomit, and to be relieved. If the spasms should continue, let this treatment be repeated.
This elixir is made by adding one pound of best gum myrrh, and three ounces of African cayenne, to one gallon of alcohol, or fourth of proof brandy. It may be taken from a tea-spoonful to a table-spoonful at a time, in water sweetened with molasses or sugar. It is efficacious in very many diseases used either internally or externally; especially in cold, coughs, consumption, pains in the bowels or stomach, rheumatism, inflammations, headache, toothache, cramp, cold feet, &c.
Take one pound of bayberry bark, eight ounces of ginger, three ounces of cayenne, and four ounces of hemlock bark; mix and for a does, take one tea-spoonful.