worms, dementia and the culpable wetnurse

Once upon a time there was a four year old girl. The daughter of healthy parents, she also had two sisters. At birth, she was a healthy child. And when she came home from the wetnurse, at around 21 months, she also appeared to be healthy. She spoke a few words,  but it must be said that she seemed a bit high strung. Loud noises made her cry out and it was almost impossible to calm her.

Things only seemed to get worse after this. By the age of two, she started grinding her teeth and seemed unable to focus her eyes on anything. Then she developed a cough. And then the worms came. Her family noticed that although she cried out often, she appeared to be comforted while passing worms.

Worms, worms and more worms. According to the attending physician, there was a “prodigious quantity” of these long, round creatures.

And these appear to have had an effect on her mental state: the girl has a good appetite and her digestive system appears normal (except for the occasional bout of constipation), but her emotional state is out of balance. She worries and she experiences extreme emotional states, from bad moods to immoderate excitement, which is often accompanied by cries and a stiffness throughout her body. She eats anything, even, until recently, garbage.

She no longer speaks. She recognizes no one. She seems to enjoy song and it appears to calm her. When her family caresses her face, she appears to enjoy it.

What can be done with this suffering child? There was so much promise at the beginning, but now, just four years later, it’s all come down to this: worms and apparent dementia.

The attending physician suggests indirectly that the wetnurse may be to blame. The family had heard that the nurse had the child consume a lot of milk, sometimes sour or otherwise compromised, as well as cottage cheese and salad. And, they also noted that the wetnurse’s children, as well as a foreign child she nursed, were also exposed to the worms.

The wetnurse appears to be a locus for contagion: not only is this child ill, but the risks also extend to other children in her care. Was her regimen to blame? Certainly, the doctor felt this was important enough to share with Tissot. Was her milk to blame? Were her moral behaviours suspect? Was her emotional stance appropriate? Did she eat good food? These are questions that would likely have guided a physician’s engagement with the child. As I’ve noted previously, doctors, philosophers and moralists were alternately fascinated and repelled by wetnurses. And the legacy of wetnursing – the milk consumed by the infant – was understood to leave a lasting legacy.

Milk and morality, worms and dementia, mercenary mother and innocent babe. Is there anything that could help this unfortunate child?



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