Skin creams and salves

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Iodine Deficiency in the Alps, 1800s

 Source: The National Magazine, Vol XI, 1857

 "Recollections of Switzerland"

The dale of Valais opens before you, traversed by the Rhone on its way to the lake, the same as in the morning you had at your right that pleasant valley whence flows the Arve, coming from Chamouni, and commanded by bold Mont Blanc in the distance.

But while this opens widely, the valley of the Rhone, more inclosed by high mountains, presents, in spite of its rich vegetation, more somber perspectives, and has a mournful aspect. The snows do not shine so radiantly as those of Mont Blanc, which appear like a glittering carpet spread out for angels to climb upon to the furthest verge of earth, and rise from thence to heaven. Here they are scattering and hung upon the broken edges of cloud-capped summits, or else they appear in the distant horizon to form mysterious and inaccessible retreats.

If the shades of evening have commenced falling in the valleys, a secret terror glides into the imagination of the unaccustomed traveler at this threshold of unknown solitudes, leading to the summit of the Alps, to regions ever vexed with tempests, to a world which is always being menaced with glaciers and avalanches.

To the mournfulness of nature may be added that which is inspired at the sight of the inhabitants. What are these deformed dwarfs with a doltish look, a stupid form, abortive efforts at humanity, that creep rather than walk, that make inarticulate sounds in their throats in place of words, whose laugh is a grimace, and whose smile freezes you, that stop you as mendicants, and whose contact with you causes an involuntary horror, as if you were seized by a phantom in the nightmare. Yet they appear inoffensive, and whatever may be the hideous complication that in them attains to perfect ugliness, an ugliness so monstrous that it would disgrace a beast, yet I know not whether it is their early degradation or a kindly decay that extinguishes upon their features even the appearance of malice and all of the passions. What are these objects of fear or of derision? They are idiots! (cretins.) 

Unfortunate race! It would seem that Divine vengeance was wreaking itself on them, that they are the cursed offspring of some one of the Titans, who tried to scale heaven by piling up mountains, and were discomfited by the thunders of Jupiter.

On the contrary, however, the fathers of these poor idiots were a simple people and pious Christians, who came to find pasturage for their herds in these secluded valleys, who passed their lives in prayer, and through lack of bread lived upon milk; who, through lack of wine, cooled their thirst with the clear water of the rivulets. But this water, against which no instinct could guard them, tends to produce that most terrible of all maladies, the goiter, which becomes hereditary and acquires the fullest development; and under the influence of the same regime continued, the intellectual faculties
are changed, and idiocy appears. What venomous principle diffused in these running waters has led to such rapid and profound disorders in the physical organization, and consequently in the mind? None at all.

 The presence of a little magnesia or the absence of a little iodine suffices to produce this effect. And this frightful degeneracy of the human species from the same causes manifests itself throughout mountainous countries, in the Pyrenees and in the Alps, in the Hartz and in the Jura, in the valleys of Thibet, in the Ural chain, in the Andes, and the Cordilleras.

The canton of Valais, in Switzerland, is one of those countries where there is a predilection to the goiter and idiocy. The latter, in its excess, is happily the exception, but the goiter, more or less developed, is general among the women, and it is almost as much of a deformity as the neck of a swan would be in carrying the head of a Valaisian woman.

Next to the goiter the most general characteristic of the Valaisian women is their singular hat. It is worn by the poor as well as the rich, only that of the rich is ornamented with a crest of a rich, wide, gold-colored ribbon, and the brim of it is formed by a multitude of black ribbons placed side by side upon the edge; a superfluity of ornament, the idea of which would scarcely enter the head of a Parisian milliner. These fine Valaisian hats are quite expensive; but one of them lasts a long time, for they are only worn on Sundays and occasional fete days.

If you scale the Alps, whose glaciers separate Switzerland from the kingdom of Sardinia, you will also find, in the southern valley of Aosta, the goiter and idiocy as much as in the northern valley already described. At the village of Aosta these things are infinitely worse. On a summer Sunday, if you pass through the streets at an hour when the inhabitants come and seat themselves before the door to enjoy the air, you will be much affected at the sight of the numerous idiots.

A single road easily accessible, the route so celebrated under the name of the Great St. Bernard, is the means of communication between these two valleys, so rich in beautiful and picturesque scenes, and so mournful by the degradation of a part of the human race.

Source: The National Magazine, Vol XI, 1857