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Setauket program shows how medicine was once practiced

The young girl was in poor health when she arrived at Dr. Samuel Thompson's house in Setauket.

Thompson's midwife apprentice, "Mary," examined the 10-year-old, noting "she gets bad fevers, coughs blood and she's tired a lot." Her diagnosis: "consumption." Mary told the patient Thompson would treat her with "cupping" - using a heated glass bell to raise blisters on the skin to remove poisons from the body. He would also prescribe laudanum, an alcoholic liquid containing opium and morphine, for the cough, and lavender pills to improve digestion.

If the diagnosis and treatment seems odd, it's because Thompson practiced in the 18th century. His weathered, clapboard home on North Country Road is now a historic site, where the medical practices of 1789 are being recreated in a new educational program.

After a $70,000 interior restoration, the house is being reopened by its owner, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, which is celebrating the structure's 300th year. A new, interactive program shows how medicine has evolved, in part by using re-enactors to bring Mary and Thompson's patients back to life.

The consumption victim, portrayed by 10-year-old Demi Lambadis, and fellow fifth-graders from Eugene Auer Elementary School in Lake Grove recently joined six first-year medical students from Stony Brook University Medical Center who have volunteered to participate in the program's trial run, standing in as the colonial-era doctor.

Mary, portrayed by the organization's education director, Deborah Boudreau, and its president, Gloria Rocchio, who was filling in until the medical students get up to speed in their roles as doctors from the past, talked about how injuries and diseases like consumption - now known as tuberculosis - were treated in the 18th and 19th centuries and today.

Rocchio said more than a year of research on Thompson, who owned a farm that extended about 8 miles from Setauket to Middle Island, turned up documents including a 1789 ledger listing his patients, their ailments and what they paid in British currency before U.S. money existed.

While no proof was found, Rocchio believes Thompson was a member of Gen. George Washington's Setauket-based spy network during the American Revolution. Other known members were patients, she noted, "and he was given 1,000 acres after the war by the government."

The office is equipped with period furniture and instruments including a microscope, bone amputation saw and devices whose use stymied the students. "We know what was in this house because when Dr. Thompson died in 1811, the Town of Brookhaven took an inventory," Rocchio said.

Rocchio showed the students the "cupping" bell along with a pewter bowl used for bleeding patients, a practice intended to heal but which made them weaker, and a corkscrew-like device for removing teeth. The fifth-graders responded with a chorus of "eeeews."

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