There is no point where a woman is more liable to suffer from a want of knowledge and experience than in reference to the health of a family committed to her care. Many a young lady who never had any charge of the sick; who never took any care of an infant; who never obtained information on these subjects from books, or from the experience of others; in short, with little or no preparation, has found herself the principal attendant in dangerous sickness, the chief nurse of a feeble infant, and the responsible guardian of the health of a whole family.
The care, the fear, the perplexity of a woman suddenly called to these unwonted duties, none can realize till they themselves feel it, or till they see some young and anxious novice first attempting to meet such responsibilities. To a woman of age and experience these duties often involve a measure of trial and difficulty at times deemed almost insupportable; how hard, then, must they press on the heart of the young and inexperienced!
There is no really efficacious mode of preparing a woman to take a rational care of the health of a family, except by communicating that knowledge in regard to the construction of the body and the laws of health which is the basis of the medical profession. Not that a woman should undertake the minute and extensive investigation requisite for a physician; but she should gain a general knowledge of first principles, as a guide to her judgment in emergencies when she can rely on no other aid.
With this end in view, in the preceding chapters some portions of the organs and functions of the human body have been presented, and others will now follow in connection with the practical duties which result from them.
On the general subject of health, one recent discovery of science may here be introduced as having an important relation to every organ and function of the body, and as being one to which frequent reference will be made; and that is, the nature and operation of cell-life.
By the aid of the microscope, we can examine the minute construction of plants and animals, in which we discover contrivances and operations, if not so sublime, yet more wonderful and interesting, than the vast systems of worlds revealed by the telescope.
By this instrument it is now seen that the first formation, as well as future changes and actions, of all plants and animals are accomplished by means of small cells or bags containing various kinds of liquids. These cells are so minute that, of the smallest, some hundreds would not cover the dot of a printed i on this page. They are of diverse shapes and contents, and perform various different operations.
The first formation of every animal is accomplished by the agency of cells, and may be illustrated by the egg of any bird or fowl. The exterior consists of a hard shell for protection, and this is lined with a tough skin, to which is fastened the yelk, (which means the yellow,) by fibrous strings, as seen at a, a, in the diagram. In the yelk floats the germ-cell, b, which is the point where the formation of the future animal commences. The yelk, being lighter than the white, rises upward, and the germ being still lighter, rises in the yelk. This is to bring both nearer to the vitalizing warmth of the brooding mother.
New cells are gradually formed from the nourishing yelk around the germ, each being at first roundish in shape, and having a spot near the centre, called the nucleus. The reason why cells increase must remain a mystery until we can penetrate the secrets of vital force - probably forever. But the mode in which they multiply is as follows: The first change noticed in a cell, when warmed into vital activity, is the appearance of a second nucleus within it, while the cell gradually becomes aval in form, and then is drawn inward at the middle, like an hour-glass, till the two sides meet. The two portions then divide, and two cells appear, each containing its own germinal nucleus. These both divide again in the same manner, proceeding in the ratio of 2, 4, 8, 16, and so on, until most of the yelk becomes a mass of cells.
The central point of this mass, where the animal itself commences to appear, shows, first, a round-shaped figure, which soon assumes form like a pear, and then like a violin. Gradually the busy little cells arrange themselves to build up heart, lungs, brain, stomach, and limbs, for which the yelk and white furnish nutriment. There is a small bag of air fastened to one end inside of the shell; and when the animal is complete, this air is taken into its lungs, life begins, and out walks little chick, all its powers prepared, and ready to run, eat, and enjoy existence. Then, as soon as the animal uses its brain to think and feel, and its muscles to move, the cells which have been made up into these parts begin to decay, while new cells are formed from the blood to take their place. Thus with life commences the constant process of decay and renewal all over the body.
The liquid portion of the blood consists of material formed from food, air, and water. From this material the cells of the blood are formed: first, the white cells, which are incomplete in formation; and then the red cells, which are completed by the addition of the oxygen received from air in the lungs. Fig. 47 represents part of a magnified blood-vessel, a, a, in which the round cells are the white, and the oblong the red cells, floating in the blood. Surrounding the blood-vessels are the cells forming the adjacent membrane, b b, each having a nucleus in its centre.
Cells have different powers of selecting and secreting diverse materials from the blood. Thus, some secrete bile to carry to the liver, others secrete saliva for the mouth, others take up the tears, and still others take material for the brain, muscles, and all other organs. Cells also have a converting power - of taking one kind of matter from the blood, and changing it to another kind. They are minute chemical laboratories all over the body, changing materials of one kind to another form in which they can be made useful.
Both animal and vegetable substances are formed of cells. But the vegetable cells take up and use unorganized, or simple, natural matter; whereas the animal cell only takes substances already organized into vegetable or animal life, and then changes one compound into another of different proportions and nature.
These curious facts in regard to cell-life have important relations to the general subject of the care of health, and also to the cure of disease, as will be noticed in following chapters.