During the first half of the 19th Century, the standard medical practice consisted of a relatively small number of treatments which were often characterized by their immediate, visible, and sometimes severe impact on the patient. Active and vigorous antidotes were often used by the early doctors on the frontier. These sometimes resulted in an outcome which was fatal.
During the early exploration and settlement of the Great Plains, there were many ways to die — most of them gruesome and painful. They included: attacks by wild animals (bears and wolves), arrow or bullet wounds, malaria, cholera, diphtheria, scurvy, rabies, ax mishaps, crushing by wagon wheels, crushed by horse, tumors, and snake bites.
At the beginning of the 1800s, Americans had witnessed many revolutionary changes in their lives, but medicine had not kept pace with the rest of society. Medical practices differed little from those of the 1700s.
The foremost practitioner in the early 1800s was Dr. Benjamin Rush. He believed in the Enlightenment era’s philosophy of natural law. In this rational system, the body was a machine, and all disease was one disease — an overstimulation of nerves and blood. The cure for this overstimulation called for what was known as “heroic” medicine which included bleeding, blistering, purging, and vomiting to restore the bodies “natural balance.”
Bleeding was usually the initial treatment. Later, blistering would be practiced which involved the placing of hot plasters on the skin to raise blisters. These were then drained and this was expected to comfort the patient. These blister treatments involved peeling off the patients’ skin and rubbing of irritants on the body. Some doctors even wrapped cotton around their patient and burned away the skin which was an intensely brutal and painful treatment.
The most common purgative was Calomel, a form of mercuric chloride which worked as a laxative in small doses. However, at that time, it was most generally prescribed in large doses to purge the system.
Patients on the frontier were treated with purgatives and emetics, bled often to the point of exhaustion, and blistered. Some of these medieval-sounding cures were often far more dangerous and worse than the illness or injury.
As Lewis and Clark were preparing for their expedition into the Louisiana Territory in 1804, Lewis studied under Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia. Dr. Rush was a friend of President Jefferson. Although the “Corps of Discovery” would not have a doctor with them across the country, Jefferson wanted Lewis to obtain the latest and best medical instruction available before leaving St. Louis.
Jefferson thought Rush was perhaps the best physician in the nation at that time and wanted him to train Lewis in the rudimentary lessons of medicine. After several weeks of training in Philadelphia, Lewis gathered a number of instruments and standard medicines for any number of ailments. Among them was a concoction of Rush’s own cure known as “Rush’s Pill.”
Rush referred to his special pill as “ten and ten.” He originally made the pill to consist of ten grains of calomel and ten grains of jalap. For the “Corps of Discovery” he altered the mixture to twenty grains of jalap, which would carry the calomel through the body. It was this latter mixture that Lewis and Clark carried with them on their journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Lewis and Clark left St. Louis on the afternoon of May 14, 1804 for the Pacific Ocean. They carried with them fifty dozen of these pills on board their keelboat. They were generally referred to by the members of the “Corps” as “Thunder-clappers.”
The success of the “Corps” depended upon the health of the men and the good will of the Indians. Both goals were reached to a significant degree by the medical practices demonstrated by Lewis and Clark during their twenty-eight months west of St. Louis.
Rush wrote extensively on “heroic” medicine and his work influenced many physicians who continued to follow his instructions, despite its unpopularity with patients. At the same time, doctors in France observed how patients reacted to disease. They relied upon both clinical and pathological observations to determine treatments and regularly collected and recorded statistical evidence like temperatures and pulse rates.
Between 1820 and 1860, more than 700 of the best U. S. doctors traveled to France to study their methods. Because there was considerable opposition to those doctors when they returned from abroad, “heroic” medicine still continued to be practiced. Eventually, the public developed considerable distrust of the doctors.
This resulted in quackery and patent medicines which were of unproven effectiveness and questionable safety.
South Dakota newspaper records reveal that medicine shows and their entertainers were very popular all across the state after 1885. Even as late as October 27, 1910, The Midland Mail reported:
“A medicine show held forth in the opera house last week. The company . . . put up a fairly good entertainment, but the graft they have is something fierce . . . . It was only another instance of what others have observed before our time, that the American people are the most gullible of any on the face of the earth.”
And so it goes . . . .
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on May 4, 2022