Lesson on painful medicine

History: A Howard County doctor dons colonial dress to show Trinity School pupils how people of the 18th-century fought ailments and diseases.


December 31, 2003|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Most people would cringe at the thought of having a tooth pulled without the aid of medication to numb the pain.

But if you think that would be hard to bear, imagine having a leg amputated without anesthesia. That is the sort of pain some 18th-century citizens endured as they fought diseases and ailments when medicine was in its crudest form.

This month, seventh-graders at Trinity School in Ellicott City got a sense of what life was like during the 1700s when Vietnam War veteran and Howard County physician Joseph Gagliardi donned colonial dress and portrayed a fictitious Revolutionary War surgeon, Dr. Alexander Dobbs, to teach the pupils about wartime medicine.

"The first thing I demand they do is show me the proper respect," he said, referring to his character's stance on civility.

That means schoolchildren had to bow and curtsy before exchanging pleasantries with Dobbs, whose attire was similar to that worn by George Washington, including a white wig, dark coat, short pants and low-heeled shoes.

Gagliardi's character gave an overview of 18th-century life, including his family background, followed by demonstrations with volunteers. One demonstration involved bloodletting - an incision in the throat - to relieve the pain of tonsillitis.

One pupil was put on a table in a simulation of a leg amputation, using a tourniquet above the wound site and a saw to cut the limb.

Forty-one children attended the event at the school, with some dressing in colonial garb.

"We expanded our knowledge of medicine," said Jonathan Bridle, 12. "Back then, you felt a lot of pain. I feel grateful to live in this age of medicine."

Jennifer Karkoska, 12, added, "I learned a lot about diseases during the Revolutionary War, such as pink eye and tonsillitis. I would not have wanted to live back then."

Gagliardi created Dobbs 13 years ago after parents of children at Trinity were asked to share special interests with the children.

Gagliardi spent a year studying colonial medicine, including traveling to Williamsburg, Va., to take notes and read diaries of those who lived during the 1700s. Gagliardi also sought the help of a seamstress to make his costume.

"The kids seem to love [the presentation], and they are fascinated by 18th-century life," he said.

Gagliardi so enjoyed giving the talks that he continued after his children left Trinity, appearing before historical societies and other organizations.

Ask most people who have seen the presentation, and they will tell you it is difficult to get Gagliardi out of character once he has assumed the role of Dobbs.

"I was born on Nov. 1, 1728," Gagliardi said, speaking as Dobbs.

"At the age of 10, I ran down Main Street on Sunday, got arrested and was placed in a cage. My father found me an apprentice and said I would become a physician."

Other vitals on Dobbs: He grew up with 16 siblings; was married in 1753; had four children, including one who died at birth.

Gagliardi said his role as Dobbs begins as soon as he enters the place where he is giving a presentation.

"I said things like, `Good day,'" to the receptionists at Trinity School, he said.

Gagliardi's love of history dates to his college years at the University of Notre Dame during the 1960s.

"I thought I was going to be a social studies teacher, but after I went to Vietnam I decided to give medicine a try," he said.

But it is quite a leap from giving a basic lecture on colonial history to acting out scenarios with no formal teacher training.

"Some people say I have a good sense of humor," he said, laughing.

Social studies teacher Tom Lauth agreed.

"He's totally in character when he talks to the students," said Lauth. "The students learned how soldiers slept, the kind of food they ate ... and they have an appreciation of what they have."

That's what Gagliardi hopes schoolchildren gain from his presentation.

"It gives students a sense of what 18th-century life was like," he said.

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