Quick, Go for the Doctor!

| 4/13/2015 9:17:00 AM

A doctor and patient

The 19th century doctor visiting an ill patient. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Some time ago I ran across a story about the primitive state of medicine in this country during the years before the War Between the States. It was in a book called The Early Pioneers and Pioneer Events of the State of Illinois, published in 1899 by Harvey Lee Ross, who was born in 1817and died in 1907.

When a doctor was called to see a patient the first thing he did was to examine his tongue, then feel of the pulse at the wrist; then he would have the sick one set up in a chair to be bled. The sleeve of one arm would be rolled up to the shoulder, and the arm extended out to full length, and the hand grasped around the handle of a broom-stick to hold the arm steady and in proper position. A cord would then be tied tightly around the arm half way between the elbow and shoulder, and then the patient was stabbed in a blood vessel of the arm. At first a thumb-lance was used, but the spring-lance came in as a great improvement. They usually took from a pint to a quart of blood, dependent upon the age and size of the sick one.

After the bleeding the patient would be given an emetic consisting of calomel (defined as a white tasteless compound used especially as a fungicide and insecticide and formerly in medicine as a purgative) and jalop (also used as a purgative, jalop, or jalap, is the powdered root of a somewhat poisonous morning glory plant that grows in tropical America), and after he had been thoroughly vomited he would be given a walloping dose of castor oil.

After all those horrors the patient would be taken through a course of blistering. A blister plaster 6x10 inches would be placed upon the breast, with smaller ones on the arms and legs; if the patient was very sick a portion of the hair would be shaved off the head and one of those horrible blister plasters applied to the head. The doctors made their own blister-plasters. They carried in their medicine bags a package of Spanish flies (Spanish flies are actually blister beetles that come from areas of southern Europe and central Asia. The bodies of the insects contain a highly poisonous chemical compound that causes severe irritation and blistering when it comes into contact with skin), a small cake of tallow and some pieces of canvas. The tallow would be carefully spread over the canvas, the Spanish flies sprinkled over it and pulverized with a caseknife. These flies were large and yellow, resembling yellow wasps. The plasters would be left on from six to eight hours, causing terrible pain. They would then be removed and the blister dressed with cabbage leaves, or a bit of tallowed muslin. Sometimes the blisters would be drawn so deep that it would be two weeks before they would heal; and during the time a white substance would appear in the wound which was called "proud flesh," and it was removed by sprinkling over it powdered roasted alum (an astringent that would cause much pain when applied to an open wound), this also causing great agony.

4/17/2015 8:52:09 AM

I apologize to the readers for not making it clear which parts of the above story were written by me and which are quotes. I intended to put the parts written by Erma Wonstetler and Harvey Lee Ross in italics but forgot. Most of it was written by those two, with only the explanatory notes in parentheses and a few brief comments added by me. Sam Moore


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