According to Falser Havely,* at the age of 18, Bird had a “fibrous tumor” removed from her spine.
I know. I’m making that face, too. It sounds like a horrible surgery now — but imagine what it was like in 1849. Was anesthesia even a thing?** What about germ theory?*** It’s a wonder she survived, even though she would have severe back pain for the rest of her remarkably long life.
Only traveling seemed to bring relief. “She felt less pain on a mud floor or in a wet tent, riding on a horse, a mule, and elephant, a yak, or even a cow than she did on any padded Victorian sofa.”
In some ways, traveling became an addiction for Bird and she always needed to increase the dose. Her first trip was to the American East Coast. A few years later, she went to New York and the Mediterranean but didn’t get the same thrill. So in her early 40s, she went to the Sandwich Islands in the Pacific and onward to the American West, which was still a mostly undeveloped**** frontier. And then off to Asia, including Hokkaido, Tibet, China, Persia, Kurdistan, Korea, and Marrakech. She wrote about each trip in the form of letters back to her sister; then edited the letters when she returned to Britain. John Murray published the result.
Since she had family money, the extra income from her work was put to work. When she first visited Western Scotland, which had been hit by the potato blight in the 1840s, she was shocked by the conditions there. Bird contributed money to buy “deep-sea fishing boats, equipment for tweed manufacture, and for kitting out emigrant families (who were all to often dumped on the shores of the New World with no more than the clothes on their backs).” Once she spent some time in Asia, her extra cash went to charity hospitals there.
As we know from her trip to Japan, her journeys were not without danger, almost always from the wilderness rather than humans. Her trip to Korea, however, was cut shot when the Japanese invaded the peninsula, shot the King and Queen (among many others), and a very small war ensued. Isabella “had to leave with no more than the clothes she stood up in for Chefoo (Yantai) in China. She did not even have enough money for a rickshaw, and presented herself hot, disheveled, and somewhat nervously at the British Consulate.”
For what it’s worth, it sounds like she had a lovely time in Korea before it all went pear-shaped.
* or Halser Favely, as I keep typing
** chloroform was just starting to be used and, maybe, ether. Mostly, it was just a whole lot of morphine and hope for the best.
*** Ignatz Semmelweis was just starting his work and the cholera epidemic in London was still a few years off.
**** by white people