Dr. Terrell’s Miraculous Medicine


Location and logistics spurred the economy of Lynchburg, Virginia, in the 1850s.  By 1860 the city was the state’s largest producer of plug tobacco, its products shipped across the country via the James River and three railroad lines.

Location and logistics also made Lynchburg a logical military hub at the onset of the Civil War in 1861 when a training camp was established on the town’s fairgrounds.  In 1862, when he overwhelmed Union troops during his Shenandoah Valley Campaign, General Stonewall Jackson sent both captured Federal troops and wounded Confederate soldiers to Lynchburg.  The training camp became a prisoner-of-war camp, and tobacco warehouses were converted to hospitals.

The city of Lynchburg had long maintained a Pest House, a small building where people suffering from communicable diseases could be isolated. The facility helped prevent epidemics in the community, but nineteenth-century medicine could do little to effectively treat the sufferers.  Survival depended more on patients’ constitutions than on prescriptions.

With diseases such as measles and smallpox infecting both Confederate wounded and Union prisoners, the Pest House was soon overwhelmed.  Overcrowding led to horrendous unsanitary conditions, and the death rate soared above 50%.

John J. Terrell, a young doctor from nearby Bedford County, was assigned to work at Burton’s Hospital, a short distance from the Pest House. He soon became aware of its deplorable conditions and volunteered to take charge of it.

Terrell immediately had the frame building painted.  The exterior walls became yellow, the color traditionally used to identify quarantine facilities and used by the Confederacy  to identify established hospitals within towns.  However, Terrell made a nontraditional choice for the interior walls.  He had them painted black, believing darkness would create a calming, sleep-inducing atmosphere that would prevent eyestrain and promote healing.

Another of Terrell’s changes, having the floor covered with sand, also had a two-fold purpose.  First, it helped maintain the restful mood by deadening the sounds of footsteps.  The sand would also absorb the spittle, vomit, and other bodily fluids that made the wooden floor of the Pest House dangerously slick.  Lime sprinkled on the sand helped control odors.

A clean, relaxing environment made patients more comfortable, but most of the wartime guests of the Pest House suffered from malnutrition, exhaustion, and infections in addition to the diseases that placed them there.  Even with the benefit of bedrest, their abused bodies stood little chance of healing.

However, another change implemented by Dr. Terrell is credited with saving the lives of numerous Pest House patients:  He added sauerkraut to their diets.  He knew that eating the fermented vegetable prevented and cured scurvy.  Although few of his patients suffered from scurvy, the doctor felt sauerkraut would be a healthful addition to their diet.  He was correct.  After Terrell introduced sauerkraut to the Pest House, the death rate plummeted to a mere 5%.

Terrell made the right call, probably without knowing why his miracle medicine was so effective. Nutritionists today understand that while cabbage itself is a healthful vegetable containing fiber, vitamins A, C, and K, along with trace minerals, fermentation adds probiotic microorganisms to the kraut. The probiotics aid digestion, promoting overall health. Some of those benefits are negated when sauerkraut is canned using a heat process.

Terrell’s patients, however, were eating raw sauerkraut straight from the barrel in which it was made.  Only two ingredients were needed to create the magic medicine– shredded cabbage and salt.  Once again, location and logistics came into play.

The Union blockade of Southern ports reduced exports and imports to a trickle.  As a result, the Confederate government ordered farmers to plant food crops rather than tobacco. The fields around Lynchburg produced tons of vegetables, including cabbage.

Maintaining adequate supplies of salt had been a problem for the South even before the war as the major saltworks of the United States were in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Available to the South in 1861, the Kanawha operation near Charleston, was lost when West Virginia became a Union state in 1863. Fortunately for Dr. Terrell and his patients, the last major Confederate saltwork was a mere 200 miles from Lynchburg in Saltville, Virginia.  Even more fortunately, one of the three railroads serving Lynchburg, the Virginia & Tennessee, ran through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains to Bristol, Tennessee.  At Big Lick (now Roanoke), the railroad came within a few miles of Saltville.

Many diseased soldiers confined to Lynchburg’s Pest House owed their lives to location, logistics, and Dr. Terrell’s miraculous medicine.






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