“I think he is not out of danger”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Dr. Marshall Perry didn’t quite share Cornelius Boyle’s sanguine attitude about Charles Sumner’s head wounds. He came down from Boston and saw that one had not really closed and felt “pulpy.” He advised Sumner to stay in bed and rest. Still, he believed the Senator would recover smoothly and soon.  That takes us to Sunday, May 25.

Perry told the House Committee that Sumner appeared “very comfortable” on the afternoon of the twenty-seventh but

Still, his nervous system has received such a shock that I told him he should be very careful, or reaction would come on. I did not consider, and I so told him, that he had come to the crisis. […] He had a very hot skin-was in a very excitable condition.

Perry’s news can’t have helped Sumner’s excitable condition. He complained to the doctor of

a very uncomfortable night-great pain in the back of his head, especially. The glands on the back of his neck were beginning to swell. He was quite feverish through the night.

Sumner called for Dr. Boyle as well as Perry. Since Perry didn’t consider himself Sumner’s proper doctor, he let Boyle make the decisions. Before Sumner had his very uncomfortable night, Boyle “applied collodion, which prevented the escape of pus.” Now finding him “very nervous and excited,” with a high pulse and temperature as well as pain in the back of his head, the two physicians opened the wound.

there was about a table-spoonful of pus discharged, which had gathered under the scalp. Of course he was very much relieved from the extreme suffering he had had during the night. What the result of this state of things will be it is impossible for me to say; but I think he is not out of danger.

It bears noting that all this happened long before antibiotics. When someone got an infection, as Sumner had, doctors could do little to directly fight it. Perry believed that Sumner had gotten to “the critical period” with his system producing a delayed reaction to the trauma. He told the committee that he believed Dr. Boyle acted properly in treating the Senator, but the infection remained a possibly mortal danger to him. Perry would not recommend that Sumner leave his room for any reason in his present state.

Boyle, recalled for an update, confirmed Perry’s account of Sumner’s wounds and their treatment. The patch that kept the pus in the one, he described as “a solution of gun cotton and chloroform”. Once they took that off and let the injury drain, Sumner felt much better. Boyle didn’t contradict Perry’s opinion of the Senator’s infirmity, but he told the committee that he ordered no medication safe “Congress water” and “five grains of Dover’s powders every three hours”. Boyle proscribed both “just to allay the excitement.”

These sound more like palliatives than attempted cures, which would square with Boyle thinking Sumner well on the mend. Perry thought otherwise, but he also endorsed Boyle’s course of treatment. Both men clearly think Sumner needs to take it easy, even if they might differ on how much so.

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