• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1815. . .

Sixty-eighth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


Last month, I noted that Jane Austen’s account of a September 1813 dental visit could serve as an effective antidote to any sentimental longing for life in Austen’s era, that simpler, happier time before the existence of effective anesthetic.


Today: Nostalgia Antidote, Part Deux.


The letter Jane Austen finished writing to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 206 years ago today (#121 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) conveyed some worrisome news: The Austen sisters’ older brother Henry, with whom Jane was staying in London, had fallen ill, and initial hopes for a rapid recovery were fading.


Luckily, however, the local medical man – Mr. Haydon, the apothecary -- was on the case, Jane reports to Cassandra. “Mr H. calls it a general Inflammation,” Jane writes. “He took twenty ounces of Blood from Henry last night--& nearly as much more this morn[in]g--& expects to have to bleed him again tomorrow, but he assures me that he found him quite as much better today as he expected.”


Assuming that Austen’s measurements were accurate – a bit of an assumption, since Britain didn’t standardize imperial units until nine years after her letter was written -- Henry’s doctor had apparently removed close to two and a half pints of blood from his patient’s body within about twenty-four hours and was prepared to take another pint or so a day later.


Dr. Google informs me that an average adult man has about twelve pints of blood in his body; that you can lose about fourteen percent of your blood without experiencing any side effects; that blood loss of fifteen to thirty percent will begin to cause some mild issues, such as nausea and dizziness; and that although blood plasma regenerates in forty-eight hours, it typically takes up to eight weeks to replace the pint of blood lost in a typical blood donation.


So the amount of blood Mr. Haydon was taking from Henry – probably between twenty and thirty percent of Henry’s blood supply, over the course of two days – was, to use a technical term, a whole heck of a lot. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem surprising that Henry’s illness lingered for weeks.


And also – ewww. I’m staying right here in my own century, thank you very much.


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