Thursday, October 10, 2013

1771-1832: Sir Walter Scott has polio?

Figure 1 -- Sir Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott was one of the greatest novelists in the world during the later 18th and early 19th centuries.  Most people know him through his works of fiction, although in the medical field we know him best as providing one of the earliest descriptions of the disease we now know as polio. 

As a youth he became a "voratious reader of poetry, history, drama, fairy tales and romance."  He had an excellent memory, and often impressed others by his ability to recite poems.  It probably surpised no on when he grew to be one of the greatest writers of his era, if not all time, according to

In his 1902 article "The Medical History of Sir Walter Scott, Roberts Bartholow writes that Scott was not "reticent" about his debilitated leg, and even wrote about it.  Scott wrote:
"I showed   every sign of health and strength until I was about eighteen months old... In the morning I was discovered to be affected with the fever that often accompanies the cutting of large teeth.  It held me three days.  On the fourth, when they discovered that I had lost the power of my right leg... There appeared to be no dislocation or sprain; blisters or other topical remedies were applied in vain.  When the effects of regular physicians had been exhausted without the slightest success, my anxious parents, during the course of many years, eagerly grasped at every prospect of cure which was held out by the empirics, or ancient ladies or gentlemen, who conceived themselves entitled to recommend various remedies, many of which were sufficiently singular." (2, page 314)
Bartholow writes that there were various attempts to help him with his "lameness."  When four-years old he was "sent to bath, where he lived a year and 'went through al lth usual discipline of the pump room and baths, but he believed without the least advantage to his lameness."  Here Bartholow quotes Scotts son in law and biographer John Gibson Lockhart.  (2, page 314)
Bartholow explains that he was "also treated by the celebrated electrical quack, Dr. Graham, who made a great parade of electical appliances, but he was not benefitted in the least by the magnetic tough of the splendid quack, or by the electric current. (2, page 314)

Figure 2 -- Lord Byron
By the end of the 19th century massage, movements and local electrization were shown to be effective as treatments of such paralysis, which historians believe to be poliomyelitis, or what was also referred to as infantile paralysis.  It was called this because it affected infants, and caused paralysis, mainly of the legs, for life.  (2, page 314)

Other treatments were also used.  Baartholow writes:
Scott's grandfather was Dr. Rutherford, professor of medicine in the University of Edinburgh, and by his advice, besides going into the country to rough it, efforts were made to call into action the affected muscles by the will. This method consisted in placing bright objects, or things that the boy especially desired, in such a position that he could get them only by the most powerful efforts in which the affected members participated. By the persistent use of this plan of "natural exertion" there ensued a great gain In the power of the will over the muscles, and they increased in size and in the range of their actions until the limb ultimately became quite useful, although always lame. This method of dominating the paralyzed and wasted muscles by the forcible action of the will is only possible in those cases in which a little voluntary control was still preserved. Some response to the will may be present, when the faradaic or interrupted galvanic currents have no longer any power to excite muscular contractions. That this was the case with Scott is shown by the results of the method of "natural exertion." As he writes in his autobiography:- "My frame gradually became hardened with my constitution, and, being both tall and muscular, I was rather disfigured than disabled by my lameness. This personal disadvantage did not prevent me from taking much exercise on horseback and making long Journeys on foot, in the course of which I often walked from twenty to thirty miles a day."
The poet, Lord (George Gordon) Byron  (1788-1824), who as a friend of Sir Walter Scott's, also had an obvious limp that some historians speculate was probably also caused by polio.  However, unlike Scott, Byron was taciturn about his condition, wrote none of it, and hated even to have people recognize he had a limp leg. 

  1. "Sir Walter Scott: First Baronet,",, accessed 11/27/12
  2. Bartholow, Roberts, "The Medical History of Sir Walter Scott," The Southern California Practitioner, volume XVII, Walter Lindley, editor,1902, pages 313-320

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