Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Medicine in the Old West...

By day and for twenty-eight years I have been a Registered Nurse. In that role I've done patient care, Education and now I work as a Quality Analyst, and all these jobs have been in hospitals. When I started writing, I would talk to authors who were writing "Medical Romance" and who would often ask me why I wasn't doing the same. I thought about it, but when you do something everyday, it's hard to find the passion in it after that many years.

But what has always fascinated me was how Medicine was done in the 1700's and 1800's, some of which things make me cringe as what was no known as it is today. For this post I am going to focus on a bit of old remedies, short and sweet in hopes you will enjoy it if interested and if an author something you might use in your own stories.

From those arriving out West in the pursuit of their own land and new start, those hearing of GOLD for the taking, or those outrunning a past that had caught up to them, the journey there could be hard physically and mentally. What many didn't think about ahead of time were all the illness and danger along the way: Smallpox, Syphilis, Typhoid, Scarlet Fever, Cholera, Diphtheria, Scurvy, Pneumonia, Malaria and even Rabies. (Will talk about more of these in depth on my April Post coming up next month.)

It never fails as we read or watch a western, the loaded wagon of a "snake Oil" salesman ride up in town stirring all kinds of commotion about a remedy that will cure any ailment. In the end, no one is cured but got a good dose of alcohol, menthol, liniments, oils and vegetable compounds for the most part. Now days we all shake out heads that the townsfolk should have known better and not wasted the last penny they had in hopes of a cure. But hold on, let's think about that...the salesmen were likely crooked in one way or another but a lot of the remedies they produced did have healing effects sometimes.

Alcohol-long used as an anesthetic, to sooth a fussy baby's teething, mixed with honey and lemon to sooth the throat, given in large amounts to knock someone out for surgery or to set a limb--at times it was all a doctor out west could hope to do. Render the patient as drunk as possible and until passed out so the care could be rendered. Whiskey was used as a depressant, mood modifier, for pain and even as a packet to place on an abscess tooth prior to removal.

Menthol/minty herbs-often used to create a strong medicinal smell and to offer a bit of relief to ailments. Let's think about this. When I was a child and had a chest cold, my mother would pull out the small glass jar of Vicks Salve and smear it across my chest and on my upper lips so I could breathe as I slept. Yuck huh, but the idea was the menthol kept the breathing passages open letting me rest. Well it worked back in history just the same.

Liniments and oils-do we not still use these today? The biggest thing out there right now is essential oils and each one treating a certain issues for those trying them. Sports medicine today uses heat lotions, creams and oils to sooth muscles and take away pain. Well in it's "snake-oil" form back then it did much the same.

Vegetable compounds-good for digestion and stomach pain. But today's health food stores are full of all kind of plant compounds and emulsions that offer some kind of health or illness benefit. Back in the day, it was much the same though there was little way preserving many of the concoctions without the benefit of alcohols as a preservative.

There probably isn't a one of you that hasn't had Grandma tell you about or use on you some kind of old remedy. I've heard the horror tales from people a good bit older than me that talk about the once a month caster oil (Fletchers Castoria) dose that mothers gave to their children. While the taste was their biggest dislike, the end results, a good clean out did everyone some good and some mother's swore by it.

On the same note, many osteopathic/holistic doctors will tell you that using probiotics and helpful digestive enzymes will keep things more regular and thus your health. Maybe those mothers were onto something back then. My mother remembers as a child cutting her foot badly on something rusty and her open cut was rinsed in Kerosene. Yikes, this one seems scary but I imagine it would have in sorts killed any germs in the wound so that nothing would grow.

I grew up where when my sister or me coughed through the night, it wasn't unusual to be jolted awake by my father who stuck a spoonful of whiskey, honey and lemon right down your throat. You know what? It worked in that it cut the congestion which lessened the cough and the little bit of alcohol helped with sleep. Child abuse? Nope, but it was done that way back then. Another on the same note...my mother remembers getting Turpentine mixed with a spoonful of sugar And might I also mention again a mom dipping her finger into whiskey and rubbing it on her fussy baby's gums. Hey, they didn't have a drug store and oral just down the street back then.

But some of Grandma's other remedies are some that came from generations back and still it used today would work.
  • Onion or other Poultices-draws out toxins/kills germs and kills germs
  • Cold Compresses-decreases swelling and lessens pain
  • Clay or mud Poultices-Draw out toxins/kill germs and purify
  • Boiled herb Poultices-Draw out toxins/kill germs
  • Herb/Plant Teas-helpful to a number of body and mind ailments
Many of the items above might simply mimic what we call RICE in emergency situations today. REST, ICE, COMPRESS, ELEVATE.

And there is more for some quick fun and thought.

Anemia could be treated in the 1800's by boiling rusty nails and drinking the water to gain the iron remnants. There were no vitamins in that time and this worked, or continuing to cook in a rusty iron skillet.

Consumption or Tuberculosis had no cure but patients were sent to places with drier air which we all know promotes better exchange of air and breathing. Some are sure, besides a bit of criminal past, that this is the reason Doc Holliday made his way further West, though he still succumbed to the disease.

Chills and fever were often treated by boiling Horehound to drink.

Colds and Pneumonia's and pain were often treated with mixture of Willow Bark Tea. It was said to have the benefits of pain relief and lessen the cough. It turns out the Willow Bark Plant is extracted of Acetylsalicylic Acid or into today's terminology--Aspirin. As it turns out Hippocrates studied the plant in 400 B.C.

Quinine Powder was also used mixed with liquids to lower the fever. It is derived from the cinchona tree and even today is used for the treatment of the symptoms of Malaria.

As I have done some reading and research over the years for my own historical writing, I had added to my notes and been brief here to share a bit of it. There is so much more to this and again I will post more on the illnesses Cowboys and Frontiersman faced as well as the treatment for pain and injury, so stay tuned.


Agnes Alexander said...

Thanks for posting this, Kim. I made notes for future use in my westerns. Believe it not, I remember my grandmother talking about some of these things. She often suggested a poultice when someone in the family had a chest infection. Don't know if she ever got mother to put one on me or not.

Connie said...

Great article. I learned several things I don't know about Medicine in the West, and I have been studying it for several years now. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Thanks for commenting. More on meds coming up in April and May.