December 5, 2012

Dr Cotter, the local doctor during my childhood in Innisfail

John Ray

Probably the greatest misfortune of my life occurred at a time when I was totally unaware of it.

I have frequently-occurring skin cancers, far more frequent than anything my parents ever had.  White people growing up in the tropics do tend to suffer a lot from skin cancer  -- mostly BCCs and SCCs -- as fair skin of Northern European origin (particularly Irish skin) is not at all suited to the direct sunlight of the tropics. The grey skies of England, Scotland and Ireland are its natural habitat.

But my frequency of BCCs and SCCs is extreme.  I have at least  half a dozen procedures a year to zap the worst of them.

So how come?  How come I get them so badly?  The answer is rather clear.  In about the first two thirds of the 20th century lots of kids were given low doses of arsenic for various reasons.  One such preparation was "Bell's compound" cough syrup.  It appears to have originated in the USA but was very popular for a while in Queensland.  And its legacy years later, for those who had a lot of it, is arsenic-weakened skin that frequently degenerates into  cancer.

And I had a lot of upper respiratory ailments as a kids, largely due, I think, to the fact that I have a deflected septum.  I was not in fact given Bell's compound but rather Dr Cotter's own "pink mixture" which would appear to have reflected the popular wisdom of the day about the utility of arsenic in combating coughs and colds.  So the fact that I had a LOT of it has come back to haunt me.  The toxicity of everything is in the dose so for most people the arsenic probably did no harm.  It's only when arsenic builds up that the harm occurs.

So Doctor Cotter unwittingly harmed me.  He died in 1972 so it is too late to remonstrate with him now and he was in fact a distinguished medical scientist in his day.  He was in fact responsible for eliminating Weil's disease from the sugarcane industry. Seeing my father was a canecutter for a while Dr Cotter may well have also done me a great favour.  The biography of Timothy John Patrick Cotter  is here.  He was of Irish Catholic origins and an opponent of government-run healthcare.  As the bio notes, he was an early adopter of sulfonamides  and I do remember his prescription of "M&Bs"

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