The one thing that always strikes me about westward expansion and settlers on the frontier is that so many survived. How I don’t know. They battled the harsh environment, often the lack of even basic necessities, and the lack of doctors. A simple accident such as stepping on a rusty nail could spell certain death.
So how did so many overcome those obstacles to settle the land?
One was that they had a good knowledge of the healing properties of herbs, roots, tree bark. Those people—even the mountain men—knew what could heal most things.
And even if a town had a doctor, he or she would only have certain things to treat with. Most of his arsenal consisted of the natural or holistic medicines.
Since I’m writing a story that has one of these early doctors in it, I’ve done a bit of research. What I found was very interesting.
Common in their arsenal were 12 remedies: Bismuth (stomach ailments,) Dover’s powder, Morphine, Podophyllin (used for a number of things,) Mercury with chalk, Compound Cathartic pills, Bromide of Potassium, Tincture Aconite (fevers, influenza and colds,) Calomel (kills bacteria,) Fluid Extract of Ergot (hastens contractions in childbirth and used to treat heavy bleeding,) Tincture Belladonna (colitis, peptic ulcers, nausea and vomiting,) and Tincture Hydrastis (treats a variety of problems.)
And even the doctors in the far reaches of this vast land would most certainly have had laudanum.
In his black bag, he’d carry a thermometer, obstetric forceps, a small saw, scapels, and a stethoscope. Needles and catgut for stitching up wounds would’ve been a requirement too. Some might carry more but these were standard.
Horses were the main mode of travel in making their calls, but as they were able, they bought a buggy or wagon so they could haul more supplies. Mainly, they were more comfortable.
They had to carry a lot of things in addition to medical supplies—a lantern, a shovel (for digging through snowdrifts or mud,) a hammer and wire cutters (for getting through fences,) and a blanket. Depending on how far he had to travel, he might also take some food.)
And after all this, he might get paid in livestock or garden produce. No one had much money back then.
Mid-wives often filled in during childbirth when a doctor wasn’t available. Infant mortality was very high throughout the 1800s.
Doctors had to have been awfully overworked. A lot of them became heavy drinkers, probably turning to alcohol to cope with the stress.
My mother lived through the Depression and rarely had access to a doctor. They were so poor. Of her five children, only two were delivered by a doctor…me and my baby sister Jan. She suffered one miscarriage all alone. But she lived to a ripe old age of 87. She was a true pioneer woman.
During the Depression, my daddy got his ears frostbitten and was never treated. Then he was severely burned when I was about 12 years old and spent months in a hospital.
We’re so blessed to have doctors today. I sometimes think we overuse them and go when we don’t really have to. For myself, I try to keep away from them.
I loved that show, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman. She really faced a lot of hardship. And I had a special fondness for Doc Adams on Gunsmoke.