In April 1870 Louisa May Alcott published her novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl, and celebrated by traveling to Europe with her sister May and their friend Alice Bartlett. While writing letters on the trip she didn’t recount the touristy aspects of her travels, but instead chose to detail her personal “haps and mishaps.” Below, Alcott discusses the diagnosis given to her by Dr. William Kane (a substitute for her usual practitioner) and William’s brother, Dr. John Kane. Alcott suffered several symptoms of illness including, but not limited to, headaches, vertigo, rheumatism, musculo-skeletal pain, and rashes. Biographers credit her illness to acute mercury poisoning as a result of the medical treatment she received for a bout of typhoid in 1863.
DINAN, May 30, 1870
Dear Folks—May has made up such a big letter that I will only add a line to give you the last news of the health of her Highness Princess Louisa. She is such a public character nowadays that even her bones are not her own, and her wails of woe cannot be kept from the long ears of the world—old donkey as it is!
Dr. Kane, who was an army surgeon in India, and doctor in England for forty years, says my leg trouble and many of my other woes come from the calomel they gave me in Washington. He has been through the same thing with an Indian jungle fever, and has never got the calomel out of him…I don’t know anything about it, only my leg is the curse of my life. But I think Dr. K’s iodine of potash will cure it in the end, as it did his arms, after taking it for three months. It is simple, pleasant, and seems to do something to the bones that gives them ease; so I shall sip away and give it a good trial.
We are now reveling in big strawberries, green peas, early potatoes, and other nice things, on which we shall grow fat as pigs.
We are beginning to think of a trip into Normandy, where the H’s are.
Love to all. Bye-bye!
From Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals. Edited by Ednah D. Cheney. New York: Gramercy Books, 1889. pp. 162-3
Read an essay on the subversive nature of Little Women.
Read a blog post about the process of diagnosing Louisa May Alcott posthumously.
Read more of the sisters’ letters in the collection Little Women Abroad.