Medical Care 1800s Style

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.

Do you have a favorite TV or book doctor?


Medical Care 1800s Style — 10 Comments

  1. Good morning Miss Linda- wonderful, wonderful article. I’m with you on my favorite TV Doctor. Doc Adams from Gunsmoke was wonderful. His humor, compassion, but don’t take any bologna of anyone was stellar. I agree we overuse Doctors these days and I’ve personally found the natural way with herbs and holistic concoction’s truly work and are less harmful for the body. Yes, alcohol was used many times for medicinal purposes, but I also think it fed a lot of unwanted alcoholism back in the day. Thanks for this great article. Can’t wait to read this book you’re working on and see what else you learned in your research. Have a blessed Monday, love you sister friend.

    • Hi Miss Tonya…….You’ll never guess who else is in this work in progress from Houston’s book. Dr. Mary who treated Gracie and got her well. She’s moved to this little town they’re building and her services are immediately needed. There’s a bad catastrophe (not going to say who but you’re going to be shocked) and one of my characters almost dies. I had to find out what they might’ve used to stop massive bleeding.

      You’re right about the alcohol feeding alcoholism. It was in everything. All the tonics and bitters had almost a 50% base. People didn’t know what they were taking. Laudanum was extremely addictive because it had a huge amount of opium in it. Even medicines they gave to babies and children had alcohol and opium. So much addiction.

      Have a great week! Love you, sister friend. 🙂

  2. Good morning Linda I hope you have a great day!! I love Dr Pat from an episode of The Virginian. Dr Quinn reminded a lot of her and often wondered if maybe her character wasn’t based on Dr Pat. Dr Pat was a beautiful lady Dr and was faced with opposition due to the fact she was a woman but as in Dr Quinn she eventually won the townspeople over. So looking forward to new reading from you. Love you bunches!!

    • Hi Glenda………So happy to see you. I don’t recall Dr. Pat but I’m sure I watched her on that show. I watched every episode I think. Yes, women doctors had a hard time getting accepted. Men just didn’t want them. Like I was telling Tonya, Dr. Mary from Houston’s book (woman who treated Gracie and saved her life) is in this story I’m writing. She comes to this new town Clay Colby is building. This book tells his story. Readers loved him so much in The Heart of a Texas Cowboy that I decided to give him his own book.

      Have a wonderful week! Love you, lady. 🙂

  3. Morning Linda, as always you wrote a wonderful story. I always enjoy reading them. I do have a favorite Dr. character from a book, but at the moment I am having a hard time remembering his name or what book he was from… I’ve read so many books sometimes they all just kinda run together in my head. lol I remember he was part of a large family, I believe the name was McKutchen if I’m remembering correctly. I do know it was a series of books. LOL oh well. Anyway… I am looking forward to the re-release of your next book. I just finished Houston and Lara’s story and I am having withdrawals from Houston! I miss that man! HAHAHA! 😀

    • Hi Dale…….Thanks for coming. I know what you mean about stories running together. It’s crazy. Well, since you just finished Houston’s book, you’ll be happy that Dr. Mary is in the book I’m writing. She comes to Texas. AND, the hero of this one is Clay Colby. Readers loved him so much that my editor and I thought he needed a book of his own.

      Maybe you won’t have withdrawals too bad. Luke’s story is coming fast. November will be here before you know it.

      Much love and big hugs!

  4. good morning, I have always wondered, how they survived with hardly any medical on hand, they had to know how to suck poison out from a snake bite,get a bullet out,sew a person up, make a sling,a splint. Lots of whisky used to dull the pain,and as far as babies being born,that was their fun,having sex,they had big families.they read and talked, such a simpler time,I think that is why I enjoy reading old western books,it really makes you wonder,and makes you think wow I got it easy.

    • Hi Elaine……….Thank you for stopping by. It’s just amazing that so many people survived to settle the land. Danger was all around them and they had nothing to treat with except herbs, plants, roots, etc. And like you said, they had to know a lot of stuff. Children grew up with it though and just automatically knew what treated what. Astounding! Kids today don’t know to remove a splinter. I love the old west and the more I learn the more there still is to learn. 🙂

      Much love and big hugs!

  5. We take so much for granted these days and especially when it comes to medicine and doctors. I loved Doc Adams on Gunsmoke. He not only doctored people when they got sick or shot, but he was also the town psychologist. He always had great advice to share. I enjoyed this post and I agree with you. It’s a thousand wonders that so many did survive those hard early years. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Jan…….Yes, we sure do take stuff for granted. We have it really easy with doctors and medicines at our fingertips. Back in the 1800s kids grew up knowing all about herbs, roots and barks and knew what was needed for different ailments. Kids today don’t know much of anything. They get a hangnail for splinter and they have no idea what to do. But then, many adults haven’t a clue either.

      Love you, sister!