Thursday, July 28, 2011

Anna Kathryn Lanier: Frontier Medicine

by Anna Kathryn Lanier
Copyright © 2010-2011 Anna Kathryn Lanier

Hi, Jacquie! Thanks for having me today. A condensed version of this post appeared on Seduced by History blog in April, 2010. However, I added to it for this post, especially the parts from Mrs. Child's book The Family Nurse, a book I recommend for anyone writing in the 1800s who wants to understand the medical mentality of the time.

Frontier Medicine

In my novella Salvation Bride, the heroine, Laura Ashton Slade is a trained physician. At the time, the late 19th century, several medical schools did allow females to study medicine. Laura, however, learned the old-fashion way. She apprenticed under her Uncle John, a university trained doctor. In my work in progress, a wagon train story, the heroine is a healer/midwife trained by her mother.

It is highly likely that a trained doctor and a home-taught healer would have had the same drugs, herbs and cures in their medical bag. In fact, the same medicines would probably have been found in a home medicine chest of a frontier mother, where healers where far and few between and doctors even more so.

The doctor's, healer's and mother's medicine chests would have contained such items as those listed in Bleed, Blister, and Purge by Volney Steele, M.D. and recommended by Mrs. Child in her book The Family Nurse first published in 1837. Dr. Steele lists such remedies as "feverfew, fleabane, boneset, rhubarb, Oak of Jerusalem, thyme [and] marjoram," (page 138). A few store-bought items would also be included: Opium tincture or laudanum and whiskey for pain and surgeon's plaster to bind broken limbs.

Mrs. Child suggests that "every family ought to keep a chest of common medicines, such as ipecac, castor oil, magnesia, paregoric, &c.; and especially such remedies as are useful in croup." (p 80). Her other suggested medicines include: carbonate of magnesia for ‘an acid state of the stomach,' senna as a diuretic, aloes which is ‘a warm, stimulating purgative,' sulphate of iron is 'an approved emmenagogue,' wormwood ‘has a great reputation as a tonic bitter for debilitated stomachs,' ginger is 'good for dyspepsia and flatulence."

A doctor, as well as a home-trained healer, would know how to make poultices to relieve pain, help heal burns and possibly how to prevent or abort a pregnancy. She'd know how make plaster of mustard to "ease the ache of bruises, arthritis, and pleurisy." She might even apply sugar to wounds, once commonly known to dry out a fresh wound and inhibit the growth of bacteria. (p 143, Bleed, Blister and Purge).

No matter how well trained or even how they were trained, the physicians and healers of the time had little understanding of common diseases that we have today. Cholera was the most common and the deadliest disease to sweep through a wagon train or western settlement. It wasn't understood at the time that cholera was caused by contaminated drinking water. The best way to fight the disease is to replace fluids "volume to volume" as the patient suffered from severe diarrhea. However, this treatment was not well known.

Mrs. Child's book shows how little understood the disease was at the time. She suggests "Gentle purgatives are generally employed in preference of emetics." In other words, make them purge the bowels instead of vomiting, when, in fact, neither should have been done. Opium, if available, was also given to the cholera patient to "relieve the pain and slow down the increased bowel action and cramps," (p 80, Bleed, Blister and Purge).

Diphtheria, measles, small pox and scarlet fever were all deadly diseases, especially among children, found on the frontier. Diphtheria, in particular, was the most dreaded. Highly contagious, a single case could start an epidemic, resulting in a high number of children dying when a "pseudo-membrane in the throat and pharynx...obstructed the windpipe and shut off air to the lungs." If the child survived this, she might still die from heart failure, caused when a potent toxin was secreted that effected the heart, (p 264, Bleed, Blister and Purge).

One often overlooked disease on the westward trails was scurvy, which was almost as deadly to the immigrants as cholera. With a common diet of corn meal, flour, beans and boiled or salted beef and few fresh vegetables and fruit, scurvy ran rampant in the West. Scurvy affects the overall health of the patient, causing extreme fatigue, nausea, pain in the muscles and joints of the body, bleeding of the gums (oftentimes resulting in the loss of teeth) and hair and skin become dry. The simple cure for scurvy is the intake of Vitamin C, but the correlation between diet and scurvy was not discovered until the late 1800s. Ironically, a common native plant along the trail, watercress, was full of Vitamin C and would have been a simple cure to this disease. Many immigrants thought of watercress as a weed and didn't eat it, though it was often in abundance along the trail.

To understand the magnitude of sickness and death on the journey, one only needs to look at the diaries written by those brave souls who made the journey. In Covered Wagon Women, 1840-1849 by Kenneth Holmes, two women note such occurrences. Anna King, on page 42, relates, "I wrote to you at Fort Larim that the whooping cough and measles went through our camp, and after we took the new route a slow, lingering fever prevailed….Eight of our two families have gone to their long home. Upwards to fifty died on the new route."

Sallie Hester reports "We had two deaths in our train within the past week of cholera – young men going West to seek their fortune. We buried them on the banks of the Blue River, far from home and friends," (page 237).

By today's standards, medicine in the 19th Century was crude in the best of hospitals. On the frontier, it was downright rudimentary. As much as I'd love to give my heroines insight to the knowledge we have now, I shall have to resist and let them heal their patience with the remedies tired and true at the times.

Visit my website and blog for other frontier information.

I'll give away a copy of Salvation Bride, a best-selling ebook from The Wild Rose Press, to one lucky commenter. Another lucky person will win free registration for my August workshop:

Pioneering Women of the West.
August 1-31, 2011

The West was discovered by men looking for adventure and fortune. But it was civilized by women who brought families, schools, churches, and stability to the area.

In Pioneering Women of the West, you'll learn about the western movement, the treacherous journey hundreds of thousands people took and of the lives of specific women who helped shape the West, intentionally or not. Some women went looking for a better life; others followed their man into the wilderness.

There will be three lectures a week, with time for questions and answers and additional research on the participants' part.

Drawing for both prizes will be held at 10pm Central Time on Saturday, July 30. 

One Romancing The West Follower will receive a $25 Amazon gift certificate.  Drawing for that is July 31 at 10pm Pacific Time.


  1. hi thanks this sounds great. i will let everyone know. joannie

  2. Salvation Bride sounds great! I'm going to have to read it.

  3. Hi! Sorry I'm chimming in so late. I was out and about with my mom today. Thank you Joannie and Ruby for stopping by. I find learning what people thought about healing way back then very interesting.

  4. Very interesting post, Anna. They were hardy, brave people.

  5. One of my ancestors died of measles in 1888. Others died of asthma and "consumption."

    The book I use was first published by a Dr. Chase in 1837. I'm amazed at how many of his treatments involve turpentine. One reason is he reporred methods recommended by other physicians as well as his own. However, the section on tuberculosis is amazingly modern.

  6. Great post, Anna! I always enjoy learning more about medicine int he 1800's.

  7. WOW! Lots of fabulous information here! Thanks for sharing. Reminds me to take my Vitamin C too. ;-D

  8. Great post, Anna. I learned about all these botanical drugs when I studied Pharmacy. Sometimes, they worked and sometimes they didn't but it's they had before the sulfa drugs and antibiotics appeared. I write medical romances and love any book with medical setting or informations.

  9. I don't know what I did, but I just lost my post!I hate that.

    Anyway, thanks to everyone for stopping by. I appreciate the comments. Caroline, Turpentine is mentioned in both books. Mona, while some of the things they did back then were really off the wall, modern medicine is looking into some of the herbs and bringing them back into play, which I think is a good thing. Not everything they did or knew was bad.

    I'll draw for a winner for my novella on Friday, unless Jacquie has another plan.

  10. Interesting and informative post, Anna. I always enjoy learning about life in old west. I have Pioneering Women of the West, but Bleed, Blister and Purge is one of the research books on my wish list. Think I'll have to go and buy it now. :)

    Best of luck with Salvation Bride. It sounds wonderful!


  11. Oh, good, Carol. I know you were having difficulty posting a comment. Thanks for being tenacious. :)

    Several people had troubles during last week's Menage-a-Blog, too. I took off all restrictions but that doesn't always help, either. My only consolation is that other blogs--wordpress and tumblr--also have this problem so it's not just blogspot.

  12. Sorry, life got in the way yesterday and I didn't get a chance to draw the names for my prizes. Congratulations to Melora for winning a copy of SALVATION BRIDE and to Gerri B. for winning the workshop registration.

    Thanks to everyone who stopped by!


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