Was it tuberculosis? Or a mental disorder?
"There's a very new theory that she might have suffered from multiple sclerosis," says Maxime Chouinard, curator at the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Ont., which is mounting an exhibition on health problems in the family of Canada's first prime minister.
He says "myths and misconceptions" have persisted about ailments in the Macdonald family.
Besides Isabella's mysterious condition, there's also Macdonald's first son, John Alexander, whose death in infancy is now considered a likely case of sudden infant death syndrome, Chouinard says. As well, Macdonald's daughter, Mary, was born with hydrocephalus, an excess of spinal fluid on the brain.
As for Sir John A. himself, "he did suffer at certain points from sciatica, gallstones, things that a lot of people go through during their lives. But his main problem was, of course, alcohol," says Chouinard, citing Macdonald's well-known penchant for heavy boozing.
"Macdonald was what today we'd call a binge drinker. He wouldn't necessarily be drunk all the time ... but at certain occasions he would go out and drink very profusely, and it created problems for him."
Such as the time when Fenians raided Upper Canada and, instead of taking charge of the situation, Macdonald, then minister of militia and defence, was found passed out drunk.
Macdonald's doctor, John Robinson Dickson, profiled in the exhibition, was a teetotaller whose radical ideas included admitting women as students of medicine. Among Dickson's accomplishments was cutting off the flow of alcohol at Kingston's Rockwood Asylum.
"At the time at Rockwood people would have been prescribed alcohol on a daily basis," says Chouinard. "This is very hard for us to understand today, but patients in psychiatric institutions then were given large quantities of alcohol during the day and sedatives during the night."
The small exhibition will present Victorian-era medical implements such as leech bowls and a scarificator — a brass box with spring-loaded blades — both used for bloodletting. Also featured are medications such as laudanum, a form of opium given to Isabella to help ease her pain.
Macdonald, whose family immigrated to Kingston from Scotland when he was a boy, helped establish the first faculty of medicine at Queen's University. He is buried in Kingston's Cataraqui Cemetery.
"A Stubborn Illness: the Health of the Macdonald Family" is among events across the country marking the 200th anniversary of Macdonald's birth in 1815. It opens July 1 and will run at least until the end of the year.
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