Lum: Medicine in the 1940s |

Lum: Medicine in the 1940s

Su Lum

We were sick a lot when we were kids, and without the miracle drugs of today, we’d be sick for a long time — weeks in bed with chickenpox, measles, mumps and endless rounds of strep throat and colds.

Our doctor made house calls. He didn’t have a horse and buggy, but he had one of those black doctor’s bags with all of its sinister ingredients. He would prescribe pills, which came in dark-red cardboard boxes that came in various sizes — none of this childproof crap, and none of us would dream of eating them for fun.

I have no idea what the pills contained, but sulfa (which gave me screaming head-to-toe hives), quickly followed by penicillin, did not come on the market until I was in second grade.

When I was in kindergarten, I came down with acute nephritis — a kidney disease — and was sick for seven weeks. Keeping the house monkey in bed for that length of time must have been quite the feat, or I must have felt too awful to fight, but I clearly remember getting a little present every day (modeling clay, coloring book) and, after I recovered, bragging to everyone in sight, “I was sick in bed for seven weeks.”

The worst health event was my older sister’s hospitalization for two months in the middle of the war when my parents didn’t have the gasoline for more than infrequent visits — grim times all around.

My mother liked reading aloud to us after supper every day. I remember “Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” “The Secret Garden,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Just So Stories” and a dreadful book called “Diddie, Dumps and Tot” about three little white girls who each owned a little black slave child, a detail I had completely forgotten until I picked up the book 70 years later.

When we were sick in bed, my mother read to us full-time. Much as she enjoyed reading aloud in reasonable snatches, I am sure she would have killed for audible books that could get her off the hook when we were sick.

There was no TV, radios just played music, and we demanded entertainment. “Read, read, read,” we’d beg as she escaped downstairs to fix our lunch.

The closest we ever saw of a dispute between our parents came when we were mid-measles and at the end of our ropes having to stay in bed in a darkened room for two weeks, unable to read for ourselves. This was before vaccines — everybody caught the measles and worried about blindness.

My father came home from work, we chorused, “Read, read, read,” and my mother thrust the book at him and left to fix dinner.

Unfortunately, the book was “The Little Colonel,” about (what else?) a little white Southern girl, and it was written in Southern dialect. My father was never able to resist a joke, so of course he began reading with an exaggerated Southern accent while we howled at him to stop.

I remember the heavy tread of my mother’s feet as she stomped up the stairs to find out what was going on in the sick room. The two of them repaired to the kitchen to thrash it out.

I remember that my sister and I crept out of bed and put our ears to the heating vent in the floor to listen to the ensuing discussion, which was along the lines of “I’ve been reading myself hoarse all week, and the least you can do is … ” followed by my father’s rather sheepish (with a “tattletales” undercurrent) return to the bedroom, reading the book in normal English.

That was their one big fight, talked about for years after.

Su Lum is a longtime local who is becoming an impatient patient with the slow progress of her back. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at