Sunday, January 9, 2011

Medicine in the Old West

If you overindulged during the holidays and suffered from an upset stomach, perhaps you chewed some mint leaves or drank some mint tea to feel better. If so, you were practicing a health cure that was common in the 19th century. This folk custom, according to Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850 – 1900, by Jeremy Agnew, was the origin of having an after-dinner mint.

This 252-page book, published in 2010 (ISBN 978-0-7864-4623-0) by McFarland, is both an excellent resource about medical care in the latter half of the nineteenth century and a fascinating look at how people in various walks of life managed to survive during that time period. Considering the general lack of knowledge about pathogens, sanitation, hygiene, and diet, it’s a wonder that so many people lived to adulthood. Of course, they didn’t live nearly as long as we do now—in 1880, life expectancy for men and women was around 40 years old.

There are twelve chapters in Medicine in the Old West. After providing a general introduction to medical beliefs, the training of physicians, and general living conditions experienced by various groups of people living on the American frontier in the first three chapters, the author then spends the next two chapters describing numerous “Common Diseases” such as cholera, dysentery, malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, and others, and “Unmentionable Diseases,” which were sexually-transmitted diseases. Information about each disease is presented clearly and includes how they were treated. One chapter at the end of the book describes dentistry and ophthalmology in the Old West.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Medicine in the Old West is Chapter 6, entitled “Healing with Drugs.” Purging the bowels was a common treatment as doing so was thought to purify the body. As Agnew writes, “…neglect of the bowels was thought to send a person down the pathway to appalling disease.” (p. 98). Plummer’s pills, a mixture of jalop, antimony, and colomel, was one very powerful laxative. Exit from Wickenburg takes on a whole new meaning when I think of Jim Plummer now!

Later chapters in the book include information on folk remedies, patent medicines, and Native American healing practices. The heyday of medicine shows was from 1870 - 1920, and Dr. Snively and his daughter Cybele in Witness to a Lynching are archetypes of the pitchman, who was "...a distinguished older-looking man dressed in a frock coat and top hat..." who sometimes "...conferred the title of 'Doctor' on himself..." (p. 193), and the entertainer who sang and danced and then sold the show's product.

Chapter 8, "From Sawbones to Surgeons," deals with common injuries and how they were treated. According to Medicine in the Old West, infection almost always occurred after surgery, due to the fact that surgical tools were not sterilized before use and because doctors did not understand how infection could be prevented until the 1870s and 1880s and even then, many did not take preventive measures when they operated on patients. One section in this chapter describes the use of anesthetics. Four and a half pages are devoted to describing how gunshots and arrow wounds were treated. As in other parts of this book, Agnew intersperses medical information with historical accounts of people who were shot and the doctors who treated them, often quoting from primary sources; these eyewitness descriptions offer readers a sense of how difficult life really was at that time. After reading this part of the book, it is obvious that Heyes was exceptionally lucky in The Fifth Victim.

Another chapter in Medicine in the Old West describes several different job occupations and the hazards that arose from that work. Working in a mine, in a mill, and on the railroad are extensively covered. The section on dynamite (pgs. 160 – 165) is very revealing: Kyle Murtree had to be very brave and not nearly as, well, stupid, as he is often made out to be; otherwise, there is no way he would have survived so long using such a dangerous explosive.

A glossary; two appendices: a list of drugs commonly used between 1850 - 1900, and a description of what a doctor's bag typically contained; along with endnotes, an extensive bibliography, and an index round out Medicine in the Old West.

Contributing a beneficial counterpoint to how gunfights and illness are portrayed in movie Westerns and TV shows, and as an essential reference for writers of Western fiction, Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850 – 1900 is a must-read for anyone interested in the reality of medical care during this time period.

Publisher's website for the book: