A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Thomas Jefferson sent a secret appeal to Congress on January 18, 1803 to explore the Missouri River and a route to the Pacific Ocean.  This was done confidently so as to not arouse of the jealousies of England, France, and Spain with a large military party poking around in disputed territory.

In his confidential message to Congress, Jefferson stressed the value of the Missouri River fur trade and emphasized the importance of sending a military expedition to explore the territory.  Congress approved the project and authorized the expenditure of $2,500 to finance the undertaking.

Meriwether Lewis was immediately asked to organize and lead the expedition.  He had served as Jefferson’s private secretary since 1801.  Lewis proposed that a co-leader with equal rank and responsibility be appointed.  His request was granted and he was authorized to select a companion.  His choice was Second Lieutenant William Clark.  They were both referred to as “Captain” during their 8,000 plus mile trip.

As early as 1802, President Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a well-known physician from Philadelphia, asking him to allow Lewis to spend three months with him.  While there, Lewis observed the medical practices of Dr. Rush and asked many questions regarding common illnesses and diseases.  That winter, Lewis studied botany, zoology, medicine, and celestial navigation in preparation for leading the expedition to the Pacific.

Dr. Rush was considered to be one of the leading physicians and thinkers of his time.  He had signed the Declaration of Independence as a Pennsylvania delegate in 1776 and was instrumental in stopping a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793.  It is thought that he assisted John Adams in authoring several of the “Federalist Papers” as well.

The success of the expedition depended to a large degree on the health of the men and the good will of the Indians which they would meet along the way.  Both of these goals were reached to a considerable degree by the medical practices which Lewis and Clark followed.

The majority of the supplies and equipment needed for their journey was obtained in Philadelphia.  The quantity and variety of goods acquired for the expedition were surprising.  The total weight of food alone exceeded seven tons.

Equipment, including a blacksmith’s forge, a mill for grinding corn, carpenter’s tools and axes, instruments for surveying and navigation, medical supplies, and cooking utensils were transported up the Missouri and down the Columbia rivers.  In addition, there were fifty-two lead canisters weighing four hundred and twenty pounds for sealing one hundred and seventy-five pounds of gun powder and four hundred and twenty pounds of sheet lead.  Other cargo included:  six kegs of brandy (thirty gallon), a few bundles of extra clothing, and several bolts of oiled linen for tents.

The journey upstream was slow and toilsome.  The current was strong and the channel was impeded by shifting sand bars and submerged timbers.  The sail on the keelboat was of little use because of unfavorable winds.  Oars alone were scarcely adequate for making progress in the swift waters.  It was frequently necessary for men to use tow ropes to drag the heavily laden boats forward.  In spite of the tons of cargo, the party moved resolutely toward the Pacific Ocean.

They left Missouri with four horses which were primarily used by the hunters as the boats were being coaxed upstream by the remainder of the crew.  They were not of much help in pulling the boats upstream against the current.  They were used primarily for the transporting of game that had been killed back to camp.  They also had the desire to wander away in the night and much time was spent searching for these pesky horses.

Dr. Rush also prepared his famous bilious pills, more commonly known as “ten and ten.”  He originally made the pill to consist of ten grains of calomel (mercury chloride) and ten grains of jalap.  He thought that these pills would cure any number of ills and he suggested that if one pill didn’t do the trick, take two or three!

Used as a purgative, they were also referred to as “thunderclappers” or “thunderbolts.”  Fifty dozen, 600 of these pills were on board the keelboat when it left St. Louis.

It is interesting that as he was planning and putting together the expedition that would explore the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson had a very poor opinion of both medical and veterinary science.  For someone who had perhaps the largest library in this country at his Monticello home, this seems unusual.

In a letter to Dr. Rush he wrote:  “I shall receive your proposed publication and read it with the pleasure which everything gives me from your pen.  Although much of a sceptic in the practice of medicine, I read with pleasure its ingenious theories.”

Dr, John Crawford received a letter from Jefferson which was much more direct and blunt.  “While surgery is seated in the temple of the exact sciences,” the President wrote, “medicine has scarcely entered its threshold.  Her theories have passed in such rapid succession as to prove the insufficiency of all, and their fatal errors are recorded in the necrology (list of the recently deceased) of man.”

Progress in the healing arts was slow in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  It was only during the Civil War in 1863 that the National Academy of Sciences was established.



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on May 26, 2021

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