In the first decade of the 20th Century, children were forced to confront death while local doctors did their best with limited means

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

A group of Helderberg Church women of varying ages met at a private home in Fullers probably to plan a church fundraiser, but also offer each other support if needed. Women’s health issues were rarely mentioned in public except in the Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound advertising. 

When in 1908 William Thomas Beebe passed away at the advanced age of 94, he had achieved twice the 47 years average age at death reached by the ordinary American at the turn of the 20th Century.

While few Guilderland residents lived to Beebe’s advanced years, an informal survey of the Enterprise’s local columns and obituaries appearing during the century’s first decade reveals that, while only a rare few ever reached 90, a very sizable number of townspeople survived well beyond 47 into their 60s, 70s and 80s.

To reach elderly years, each individual had to avoid or overcome many possibilities of serious or possibly fatal illness from infancy to old age. This was still a time when health care was entirely provided in the home where women were the primary caregivers.

Professional medical aid was available from Guilderland’s dedicated doctors traveling for house calls in buggies or sleighs: McKownville’s Dr. Helme, Guilderland’s Dr. DeGraffe, Guilderland Center’s Dr. Hurst, Altamont’s Dr. Jesse Crounse and Dr. Fred Crounse. In addition, Voorheesville’s Drs. Shaw and Joslin crossed town lines to treat some patients here as well.

Tending to births and babies, children, severe illnesses, accidents and deaths, they were limited by the preliminary medical knowledge achieved up to this time. Guilderland’s location made trips to either of Albany’s two hospitals practical to undergo the limited surgeries then already possible and quite a number of residents were reported to have undergone operations.

Then, as now, finances played a part. Even though country doctors had the reputation of being flexible about payments and were reputed to accept payment in farm products or services at times, a poor family would likely hold off calling the doctor until things were critical while hospital visits would have been very unlikely unless the patient could pay.

Holding out hope of relief or cures were the endless Enterprise ads for patent medicines that seemed to cure or address almost any health problem, various nostrums for sale at the town’s general stores or available by mail. Sick citizens of that era, often ardent prohibitionists, were unaware that these concoctions were often heavily laced with alcohol or narcotics.

Ads frequently carried testimonials of cures that with clever merchandising usually mentioned multiple bottles were needed to achieve that particular cure or at least relief. Consumers’ choices included Cramer’s Kidney and Liver Cure; Chamberlain’s Colic, Cholera and Diarrhea Remedy; Dr. Miles Heart Cure; Dr. Miles Nervine; and Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root for bladder problems — just a few samples of what were advertised.

An informal survey of Enterprise local columns from the first decade of the 20th Century gives much detail about the state of health in Guilderland. Some of the reporting seems an invasion of privacy, but these reports probably brought sympathy, support, and actual help for the families or individuals involved.


Childhood illness

Babies were born at home, mothers often attended by one of the local doctors. Stories have been passed down of premature babies put in slightly warmed ovens to survive if possible.

Living through infancy was a challenge for a child with a congenital birth defect or any digestive issues and most infant deaths were attributed to cholera infantum, a general term relating to this failure to absorb nutrition. Cholera infantum shows up on the Prospect Hill Cemetery record of infants’ burials during that period.

Poignant notices occasionally appeared such as this one in the Guilderland Center column referring to the couple whose infant daughter “died after gladdening the hearts of the young parents for two days” or another grieving couple who had “the sympathy of their friends at the loss of their infant daughter, aged seven months.”

Having passed through infancy, childhood was the individual’s next challenge when bouts of viral  childhood diseases would be their lot. Being that the town’s one-room schools used a pail and dipper and an outhouse to be shared by all, when the contagious childhood diseases of measles, mumps, and chicken pox showed up, they could easily spread and every now and then one or another of the town’s schools would be closed for a week due to illness.

More serious were the contagious bacterial childhood diseases of whooping cough and scarlet fever. During this decade, whooping cough appeared rarely in Guilderland, but scarlet fever showed up repeatedly year after year. Caused by streptococcus, these two diseases could be fatal and there were examples of deaths here in Guilderland.

One year, Parkers Corners District one-room school closed for a week due to scarlet fever. One family there first lost their 16-year-old daughter to the disease, but within that month their 4-year-old daughter who had initially come down with scarlet fever, developed the complication of pneumonia and died as well.

Another year, a young man from the Fullers area died of “malignant scarlet fever,” while near Altamont a 47-year-old man died described as “a cripple nearly all of his life from the effects of scarlet fever.” A serious complication that could result from scarlet fever was rheumatic fever affecting the heart.

Diphtheria was another bacterial disease chiefly of childhood, but adults could catch it as well. It was frequently fatal. Although not widely reported in Guilderland during these years, there were two deaths from diphtheria listed among Guilderland children buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery at this time.

Children were forced to confront death at an early age at a time when it was not unusual for a classmate or a sibling to die. On the day the funeral of one 9-year-old girl, “loved by all who knew her,” was held from her father’s home near Fullers, the one-room school she attended was closed and the teacher and students attended the funeral.


Adult sicknesses

Assuming a man or woman had survived infancy and childhood, there were many possibilities for sickness or ill health during the adult years. Chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes were left untreated with no medications available.

Eventually a sufferer of hypertension would likely have died of apoplexy or stroke, usually people of more advanced years, with many recorded by those diligent community reporters. Diabetes was not mentioned possibly because childhood diabetes was probably fatal and adult diabetes was rare at that time due to their way of living.

People suffered from kidney disease with Bright’s disease and nephritis mentioned. Consumption or tuberculosis did not seem to be a problem here and, although one man died of it, he seemed to have moved to Guilderland more recently.

Quinsy, a throat infection, appeared every now and then although tonsillitis was more common. Also frequently noted was appendicitis and several had surgeries at one of Albany’s two hospitals.

Typhoid fever, a serious bacterial illness acquired from drinking contaminated water, could be fatal and was always serious. Mentioned regularly, most survived, but a 24-year-old man “of good habits and disposition” died after a bout with “malignant typhoid” and a 16-year-old Guilderland girl did not survive after she became ill.

One seasonal malady was la grippe or the grip known now as influenza or flu. It appeared each year, affecting some who recovered quickly and returned to work, while others were housebound for varying periods of time. For those already suffering health problems, fatal pneumonia could develop.

Cancer, always a dreaded diagnosis, was not as openly discussed in that era as in our own. Nevertheless, it was many times mentioned as a cause of death.

Some of the surgeries at the Albany hospitals were cancer-related such as the Guilderland Center man who “had an operation for removal of a cancer from his lower lip. Drs. Frank Hurst and Frederick Crounse were the physicians in attendance.”

In spite of the operation, although being called a success, he was back a month later for “the removal of another cancer of the same nature.” Sadly, a year later the disease killed him and sympathy was asked for his grieving family.

A Settles Hill woman died from “the dread disease cancer,” while another woman had “looked forward to a time when the ravages of cancer would end all her suffering and she could sleep in death.”

Others who were noted as dying after a lingering illness or suffering for a length of time may very well have also died due to cancer. However, most of these cancer sufferers seemed to have reached their 50s and 60s.

In 1900, there was a smallpox scare when the writer of the Village & Town column wrote that several cases of smallpox had recently been reported in Schenectady where there had been precautions and quarantines in place with vaccinations being urged.

“It would be well for the inhabitants of this and nearby villages to consider the matter of vaccination before the disease makes its appearance,” the village corresponded advised

The next week, the Guilderland Center correspondent commented, “No small pox developments as yet, still many are calling on the doctor for vaccination ….” Smallpox never materialized in Guilderland to the relief of the town’s doctors.

Women’s health issues were still unmentionable in those closing years of Victorian era prudery. However, the frequent ads for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound actually were often quite frank and women with “female problems” were urged to write to Mrs. Pinkham for advice after being assured all letters were “received and opened, read and answered by women only.”

And of course, women were urged to buy bottles of Vegetable Compound in the meantime.



Accidents, frequently serious enough to require a doctor’s attention, often related to wagons or farm chores. Try doing your farm chores with your “right hand injured quite severely by a hay hook striking into it” or after you cut your “arm quite seriously while splitting wood.”

One laboring man in Altamont “had the misfortune to break his wrist [when] thrown off the coal wagon. The injury will lay him up for some time. Depending on his day’s work, the misfortune is the more severe.”

A week later, it was noted he had no use of his arm.

In addition to being unable to do necessary work, cuts or scratches received on the job or farm could lead to blood poisoning or sepsis. Dr. Fred Crounse was caring for a man’s case of blood poisoning resulting from “a sore on his little finger,” one of many examples reported during these years.

And accidents could be fatal. One unfortunate man lost his life crossing the West Shore Railroad tracks in Guilderland Center, and a Meadowdale woman was hit by a D&H train while walking along the tracks.

With the odds against them, how did so many of Guilderland’s population reach ages well beyond the average of the nation’s general population? Low population density, fresh air, pure water, local sources of nutritious food, and a lifetime of hard work all played a part.

Having good genes was always an advantage as well. In addition, the ministrations of dedicated and obviously skillful country doctors contributed. And for those who could afford it, the possibility of treatment at either Albany Hospital or Albany Homeopathic Hospital (now Memorial Hospital) extended some lives as well.

Modern Americans take for granted antibiotics, medications to treat a myriad of chronic diseases and conditions, scans, advanced surgeries and vaccines. Medical research and development has taken us a long way in the past century and a quarter, allowing most Americans today to live to 79.1 years or more on average.