Tag Archives: calomel

Rough and Ready Medicine

Office of Doctors Charles Hathaway and Ross Bazell, 1902, in Winslow, Arizona, courtesy Old Trail Museum

Office of Doctors Charles Hathaway and Ross Bazell, 1902, in Winslow, Arizona, courtesy Old Trail Museum

Medicine in the eastern United States was often hit-or-miss in the early 1800s, but those who pushed to the edge of the constantly changing western frontier were even more apt to suffer at the hands of physicians.

Frontier physicians often took on a variety of jobs: treating horses, pulling teeth, and concocting medicines, in addition to more traditional medical tasks like setting bones and performing simple surgeries. Many physicians were self-taught and consulted a medical manual or two for anything complicated. They relied heavily on substances like morphine; calomel, a compound containing mercury (which the World Health Organization has declared unsafe at any level); and tartar emetic, a toxic laxative containing the carcinogenic, antimony.

Dr. H. M. Greene at Right, in a LaCrosse, Washington Saloon and Pharmacy, courtesy Oregon Health and Science University

Dr. H. M. Greene at Right, in a LaCrosse, Washington Saloon and Pharmacy, courtesy Oregon Health and Science University

Because they typically had few credentials, doctors in the West tried to impress patients with seemingly exclusive or “inside” evidence of their expertise. Doctors’ offices frequently displayed medical instruments and splints; jars of leeches; body parts bottled in alcohol; and beakers, flasks, and perhaps tubing that implied scientific experimentation or the ability to make mysterious concoctions.

Distilling Devices Known as Alembics Impressed Patients

Distilling Devices Known as Alembics Impressed Patients

The local populations would be impressed, but they were equally impressed by Native American remedies and tonics touted in traveling medicine shows. The medical profession itself did not have any kind of a monopoly on public trust or faith.

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Were Cures Worse Than the Condition?

Medicine Chest circa 1850 and Pocket Pill Case circa 1820, courtesy University of Virginia Historical Collection at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Museum

Medicine Chest circa 1850, and Pocket Pill Case circa 1820, courtesy University of Virginia Historical Collection at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Museum

By the middle and late 1800s, so-called “heroic” medicine (in which extraordinary measures to cure a condition often endangered the patient) had been abandoned. However, patients were sometimes little better off calling a doctor than if they had simply endured the illness they suffered.

To treat diarrhea, for instance, doctors may have first ordered a cathartic–a medicine to accelerate the evacuation of the bowels, and then followed it with laudanum, Dover’s powder (a combination of ipecac and opium), or morphine. The latter concoctions probably relieved distress, and opium does slow the gut so that it will treat diarrhea, but they certainly shouldn’t have been taken for any chronic condition.

Popular Cathartic Medicine

Popular Cathartic Medicine

Head lice were common in crowded living conditions, and patients were advised to soak the hair on their heads with kerosene and wrap it up in a cloth for 24 hours. Since smoking was also common during this era, patients would have to take great care that nothing worse happened to their hair than an invasion of lice.

Calomel

Calomel

Doctors commonly used arsenic and mercury–both deadly–to treat syphilis in the 1800s. They also used mercury to treat typhoid fever, parasites, depression, cholera, teething pain in babies, and scurvy, usually through a mercury-based compound called calomel. Heroin, opium, and morphine were commonly used by physicians and dispensed readily (and without prescriptions) by town druggists; these ingredients permeated common medicines or what we now call “patent” medicines, sold over the counter throughout the country.

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Empty Yourself

Bloodletting As a Treatment for Agitation in Insanity, courtesy Burns Archives

Bloodletting As a Treatment for Agitation in Insanity, courtesy Burns Archives

Early alienists typically believed that an insane person needed to eliminate something from the body in order to get well. Copious bleeding and/or purging were popular ways to deplete a maniac’s excessive energy or excitement, but many alienists soon came to believe the procedure was too extreme. Instead, they turned their attention to the bowels.

Samuel Woodward, former superintendent of the Massachusetts State Lunatic Hospital, wrote in 1846 that it was “common for the bowels to be constipated in mania,” and advised a round of laxatives to help solve the problem. He also urged that these laxatives be gentle, but unfortunately turned to poisonous mercurial compounds to do the job. A popular concoction was “blue pill” which was generally a mixture of about one-third mercury, one-third rose oil, and small proportions of licorice, milk sugar, and possibly another quarter portion of hollyhock or marshmallow derivative. Two or three of these pills might represent close to a hundred times the level of exposure that the EPA considers safe today.

Calomel Preparation, Flavored

Calomel Preparation, Flavored

Benjamin Rush's Bilious Pills

Benjamin Rush’s Bilious Pills

Mercury poisoning usually shows up first with headache, nausea, stomach pain, and later, with sore gums and loose teeth. Eventually, symptoms move on to the brain and cause loss of memory and insomnia, and often irritability, depression, and paranoia as well. Since the alienist’s goal for his patient was a daily evacuation of the bowels, patients could take something like calomel or blue pill for quite some time. And, the psychological type of symptoms as a result of mercury poisoning might well keep the sufferer both in an asylum and taking the medicine indefinitely.

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The Push West

Appalachian Homesteads Had Few Comforts, 1933, courtesy TVA archives

Appalachian Homesteads Had Few Comforts, 1933, courtesy TVA archives

In April, 1750, “Colby Chew and his horse fell down the bank,” wrote Dr. Thomas Walker, an Appalachian explorer, in his journal. “I bled and gave him valatile [sic] drops and he soon recovered.”*

Pioneers going to the West encountered harsh conditions as they moved away from settlement and civilization  (see last few posts), but the western frontier itself was an ever changing border. It began in what we would now say was the East, and simply slid westward as the growing population overwhelmed their available land and resources.

Huge Trees Led to Extensive Lumbering in Appalachia, photo circa 1895, courtesy of Shelley Mastran Smith and foresthistory.org

Huge Trees Led to Extensive Lumbering in Appalachia, photo circa 1895, courtesy of Shelley Mastran Smith and foresthistory.org

As might be expected, medicine and medical care on these borders were crude and unenlightened, though not much more so than what was seen¬† in cities. Bleeding a patient after a physical injury, as Walker did, sounds counterproductive today but was a common response to almost any illness during Walker’s time.

As each new frontier settled a bit and doctors moved into regions like Appalachia, they brought a variety of experiences, philosophies, and training with them. Doctors were not required to have licenses or even to attend medical school, and they thrived or failed upon the public’s perception of their success. When patients lived through bleeding, dosing with calomel (a toxic compound of mercury chloride), narcotics, and other dangerous concoctions, doctors–rather than the patient’s robust constitution–received credit for the recovery.

* Quoted from Frontier Medicine by Ron McCallister.

Medicine Wagon Allowed Traveling Medical Care

Medicine Wagon Allowed Traveling Medical Care

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Valuable Plants

Arikira Medicine Ceremony, 1908, Edward S. Curtis

Though produce and meat constituted the bulk of regularly preserved and stored food, other plants and herbs were also important to Native Americans. Many modern consumers know the benefits of teas made from chamomile, mint, and and sage, for example, and newcomers to the continent brought medicinal plants with them both on purpose or by accident when seeds hopped rides with cargo. Peoples throughout the world have relied on the plant world for their medicines, and still do where big pharmaceutical companies have not made inroads or aren’t trusted. Patent medicines–typically vegetable extracts with plentiful amounts of alcohol, opium, or cocaine–were popular in the U.S. as early as the 1700s. However, most native peoples and settlers favored plant preparations which had some validated success.

During the Civil War, the Confederate Army relied on plant-based remedies to such an extent that it commissioned a study of herbal medicines, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests by Francis Porcher, to aid their treatment of soldiers. Doctors used onion and garlic from the allium family for their antibacterial effectiveness with injuries. The reasons behind many herbal remedies weren’t clearly understood at the time, but doctors realized that these plants facilitated recovery for soldiers with wounds and skin infections. Yarrow was an effective blood-stopping agent. Soldiers themselves used American pennyroyal as an insect repellent by rubbing the fresh plant over their skin. Unfortunately, alcohol and opiates continued to hold a powerful position with military doctors, as did harmful mercury-based products like calomel.

Medicinal Recipes circa 1871

Confederate Study of Medicinal Plants

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Recent Insanity

Patent Medicine Like Nervuna Cured Nervous Weakness and Physical Exhaustion

Alienists made a distinction between chronic insanity, which was difficult to cure, and insanity which had only recently manifested and might be cured through quick intervention. An article written in 1900 by Dr. C. B. Burr, medical director of the Oak Grove Hospital for Nervous and Mental Disorders, explained the steps alienists ought to generally take when confronted by a potentially curable case of insanity. The first step was to reduce excitement. That meant that patients should lie in bed in a quiet room, under the observation of a day nurse and night nurse. Family members should be excluded from the sickroom.

Burr then discussed the chronic constipation found among Americans at that time, saying that neglect of the bowels led to a large percentage of nervous diseases. The first order of the day, then, was to administer calomel (a toxic mercury compound) to purge the insane person’s body of impurities, and then to keep it purged with laxatives and/or enemas.

Cocaine Products Were Sold Over the Counter in the U.S.

“Tonics and remedies to promote tissue building are needed in all cases,” continued Burr. Among milder preparations like eggnog and milk punch, Burr also recommended “the bitter tonics and strychnine, capsicum, and nux vomica” (a strychnine preparation). Burr discussed depression separately, saying that general treatment remained the same as for other types of insanity, but “certain drugs like kola, coca, and caffein, are useful also in painful emotional states.”

Nurse at South Carolina State Hospital Nursing School

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Alternative Healing

In the heyday of medical schools (mid-1800s – 1920s) great philosophical differences existed in the practice of medicine. Regular medicine was more in line with what we know today–practitioners attended a medical college with standardized courses, and relied on drugs and “scientific” treatments.

Dr. John Franklin Gray, first U.S. Homeopathic Practitioner

Dr. John Franklin Gray, first U.S. Homeopathic Practitioner

Irregular medicine tended to be a reaction to the so-called “heroic” (and horrific) medical practices of the past, which relied on bleeding, purging, and blistering. Irregular medicine embraced practices like homeopathy, which was much gentler. Besides concentrating on sound nutrition and light exercise, homeopaths rarely used multiple drugs. They felt that “like cures like” and would prescribe a (highly diluted)¬† substance that mimicked a patient’s symptoms.

Regular doctors relied on drugs such as calomel (mercury) which destroyed the health of anyone taking it regularly. Many citizens preferred alternative treatments (of which homeopathy was only one) because they tended to do no harm. Many illnesses run their course and patients recover with or without medicine, so alternative treatments were generally as successful as regular ones.

Regular doctors fought the irregular ones tooth and nail, and eventually managed to shut down both their colleges and most of their practitioners.

University of Iowa Homeopathy Class of 1882, courtesy UI College of Medicine

University of Iowa Homeopathy Class of 1882, courtesy UI College of Medicine

A Pennsylvania Homeopathic Company, 1880s

A Pennsylvania Homeopathic Company, 1880s

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