“A mild February brings a fat churchyard,” an old farmer used to say. Undoubtedly there were many variants of the piece of folk wisdom that suggested that mild weather in winter was an unhealthy phenomenon. “We need a good frost to kill the germs,” he would say. It would have been surly to suggest that frosts probably didn’t kill many of the germs encountered by modern humans living in centrally heated homes. The image of the “fat churchyard” was a vivid one, conjuring thoughts of mounds of earth over the graves of the newly deceased.
The general practitioner I used to attend during the 1980s would probably have concurred with the old farmer’s opinion. He would quote a study of the deaths of older people that suggested that March was the worst month. Apparently, people who had endured the winter would find themselves bowled over by bugs that hit them in early spring; perhaps a mild February had been followed by a cold March.
Spluttering through the day, it’s not hard to imagine that there might have been at least a grain of truth in the study quoted by the doctor. Having endured the winter and the bugs common in a school of fourteen hundred students, the warm February days seem to have left a cold which has settled in the lungs.
Of course, the times recalled by the old farmer are long past. Relief from respiratory complaints in his younger days would have been sought in patent remedies. There would have been things to have been burned so that the fumes could be inhaled or proprietary lotions that could be applied to the chest.
In more recent times, jars of Vick would have offered some easing of congestion. Vick could be rubbed on, or dissolved in a bowl of steaming water. Using a towel as a canopy over your head and the bowl, and inhaling the vapour rising from the water, might not have been as efficacious as you hoped, but for a few minutes the warmth and the ability to smell something made you feel better.
The development of antibiotics and steroids transformed the lives of those who struggled for breath, those for whom winter colds could bring a miserable aftermath. If the lungs did not clear, then there could be a recourse to a prescription, but they will clear up themselves. Generations before had troubled breathing and recovered without having the option of medication.