GOING TO THE DOCTOR IN THE OLD WEST
By Annee Jones
While writing my current novel, Dalton’s Dual Brides, I began to wonder what people would do when they got sick. Were medical doctors available, or were untrained pioneer women expected to care for the ill with nothing to rely on other than folk medicine? I learned that both could be true, as well as a number of other fascinating facts about how medicine was practiced on the late 19th century frontier.
Because there was a shortage of professionals among the settlers, anyone could pretend to be a doctor and promote whatever treatment they wanted. In 1880, Tombstone boasted a population of 2,000, with 12 doctors to care for the residents. However, eight of the doctors didn't have a medical license.
Many people believed the most effective medicines were the most disgusting tasting. As a result, some doctors recommended drinking turpentine or sulfur. There are accounts from people who had their teeth fall out after taking mercury, also called “quicksilver,” which could be prescribed for anything including syphilis, parasites, melancholy, or constipation.
Bleeding was a common practice as well, based on an ancient system in which it was thought that blood and other bodily fluids (known as "humours") had to remain in proper balance to maintain health. Though bloodletting was often recommended by physicians, it was often carried out by none other than barbers in the Old West!
I was amazed to learn that the red-and-white-striped pole signifying a barbershop is actually derived from this practice: the red symbolizes blood while the white symbolizes the bandages.
As a romance author, I was especially surprised to learn of the theory that bloodletting would cure "heartsickness" and "heartbreak". A French physician, Jacques Ferrand wrote a book in 1623 on the uses of bloodletting to cure a broken heart.
Superstitious people sometimes believed doctors were performing the devil's work, and it was certainly understandable why most people feared them and preferred to be treated at home by family members they knew and trusted, often mothers and women.
This, combined with the shortage of licensed professionals in the frontier opened the door for women to learn and practice medicine professionally. In 1880, Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair earned her MD from the University of Michigan before moving to Oregon where she practiced medicine. She wrote of the challenges she faced in the West:
“I carried on my professional work as best I could in that out-of-the-way place; and at no time did I ever refuse a call, day or night, rain or shine. I was often compelled to go on foot, through trails so overhung with dense undergrowth, and obstructed with logs and roots, that a horse and rider could not get past; and through muddy and flooded tide- lands in gum boots."
Here are some remedies that come from an 1845 manual written by an untrained doctor:
Old West Remedy for:---DYSENTERY---
Dissolve as much table salt in pure vinegar as will ferment and work clear. When the foam is discharged cork it up in a bottle, and put it away for use. A large spoonful of this in a gill of boiling water is efficacious in cases of dysentery and cholic.
Old West Remedy for:---CHILLS---
The plant, commonly called hoarhound, is said to afford a certain cure. Boil it in water, and drink freely of the tea.
Old West Remedy for:---SORE THROAT, DIPTHERIA OR SCARLET FEVER---
Mix in a common size cup of fresh milk two teaspoonfuls of pulverized charcoal and ten drops of spirits of turpentine. Soften the charcoal with a few drops of milk before putting into the cup. Gargle frequently, according to the violence of the symptoms.
Old West Remedy for:---ASTHMA RELIEF---
Take the leaves of the stramonium (or Jamestown weed,) dried in the shade, saturated with a pretty strong solution of salt petre, and smoke it so as to inhale the fumes. It may strangle at first if taken too freely, but it will loosen the phlegm in the lungs. The leaves should be gathered before frost.
Old West Remedy for:---A TROUBLESOME COUGH---
Take of treacle and the best white wine vinegar six tablespoonfuls each, add forty drops of laudanum, mix it well, and put into a bottle. A teaspoonful to be taken occasionally when the cough is troublesome. The mixture will be found efficacious without the laudanum in many cases.
Old West Remedy for:---A SICK HEADACHE---
One teaspoonful of pulverized charcoal and one-third of a teaspoonful of soda mixed in very warm water.
Old West Remedy for:--A TOOTHACHE--
Powdered alum will not only relieve the toothache, but prevent the decay of the tooth. Salt may advantageously be mixed with the alum.
Old West Remedy for:---CAMP ITCH---
Take iodide of potassium, sixty grains, lard, two ounces, mix well, and after washing the body well with warm soap suds rub the ointment over the person three times a week. In seven or eight days the acarus or itch insect will be destroyed. In this recipe the horrible effects of the old sulphur ointment are obviated.
COVER REVEAL: (COMING IN APRIL!!!)
A naughty cat…a mixed-up matchmaker…an outlaw’s ghost…and now dueling brides - what’s a cowboy to do?
AVAILABLE NOW FOR PREORDER:
A widowed controlling father….a blind but rebellious daughter….can Caregiver Eliza Abraham help this family before tragedy occurs?
I feel incredibly honored to work as a disability counselor and am excited to be on a new journey as a Christian romance author. My upcoming books feature people with disabilities as well as sweet romances, happy endings, and Christian themes. You can follow me on Amazon here:
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1. The Murderous Medical Practice of the 18th Century
2. Old West Remedies
4. What Was Going to the Doctor Like in the Old West