Tag Archives: frontier medicine

A Medicine Show

Goodnight Is Credited With Inventing the Chuck Wagon

Goodnight Is Credited With Inventing the Chuck Wagon circa 1866

Medical care on the frontier came in a variety of forms. Doctors could provide care (see last post), but people also relied on their own herbal concoctions and traditional Native cures. Charles Goodnight (who with his partner established the first cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle) believed firmly in the power of buffalo fat. He and his wife made buffalo soap that Goodnight felt would cure almost anything: “I am satisfied it will relieve rheumatism. Try it for tuberculosis. I do believe it will work.”

Medicine shows provided more fun, though, and were always popular when they reached town. These shows might be only one-wagon affairs, or they might contain several wagons and a tent. Even the one-wagon show could cram in plenty of supplies and bottled “cures.”

A Small Medicine Wagon

A Small Medicine Wagon

The wagons were usually brightly painted and splashed with the name of the particular show, but it was mainly up to the pitchman to move products. This person might be a doctor, clergyman, or learned professor–or at least call himself one–and usually enhanced his character by dressing in a fancy long-tailed coat and tall silk hat. The voice was everything, and most pitchmen could whip a crowd into a passion for the alcohol-laden line of remedies they peddled.

Medicine Show Wagon

Medicine Show Wagon

Medicine shows were also shows, often featuring a female who might dance, sing, or play an instrument. A man might do magic tricks like eat fire, trade dialogue with the pitchman in a comedy routine of sorts, or show off with tricks like rope spinning. Early showmen often attacked the competency of the local doctor(s) in order to secure their own business; doctors countered by trying to get the shows run out of town. Later, the two entities learned to co-exist. Doctors quietly allowed the show to run its course, then sold the same (leftover) stock that had so impressed the locals.

 

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Practicing Medicine on a Frontier

Frontier Doctor Andrew Taylor Still

Frontier Doctor Andrew Taylor Still

Any reasonably ambitious man could become a doctor during the nation’s early years. Few licensing requirements existed, and men could choose to attend one of many substandard medical schools that were unbelievably slack in their requirements for both entry and graduation. Some men never went to school at all, but either “read” to be a doctor or served as apprentices under a practicing physician until they felt able to go out on their own.

Though some aspiring doctors took these routes to avoid overtaxing themselves mentally or financially, many others simply were not able to “go East” to an established medical school. They studied earnestly–probably harder than many of their college-educated peers. In Appalachia, many doctors took an interest in herbs and local healing folklore, and incorporated this knowledge into their practices.

Patent Medicines Thrived Despite the Availability of Doctors

Patent Medicines Thrived Despite the Availability of Doctors

 

Because it was so easy to become a doctor, physicians in the early 1800s often saturated their markets to the extent that nearly none of them could earn a real living. (This is one reason that a well-paid superintendency at an insane asylum was initially such a coveted position.)

Physicians moving into Appalachian territory often advertised their services, and sometimes offered testimonials from (supposedly) impartial and healed patients they had helped. Others made money on the side through the sale of medicines, or pulled teeth, preached, or farmed. Many physicians were paid in produce or livestock and found it difficult to actually earn cash.

Despite some undisputed charlatans and incompetents, frontier doctors in Appalachia and elsewhere were incredibly dedicated. Many doctors risked their lives to travel tremendous distances over dangerous terrain to attend patients who might pay them with fresh eggs and produce, or not at all.

Dr. Carl Hoffman, circa 1910, courtesy Orgeon Health and Science University Archives

Dr. Carl Hoffman, circa 1910, courtesy Oregon Health and Science University Archives

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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 civilizationĀ  (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 seenĀ  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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