Quick, Go for the Doctor!

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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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 6×10 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.

When I was a kid I thought my Mother’s mustard plasters were agony, but they were really pretty tame compared to this.

One marvelous thing the common people could not understand was that after the patient had gone through with all this bleeding, vomiting, purging and blistering, and been reduced to the very last extremity, he was not allowed by the doctor to take any nourishing food—nothing better than a little thin gruel, a little chicken broth, or a little toast and tea; and while the poor creature, tortured with a burning thirst, might be screaming for water, he was not allowed to have one cool drop, but might have a little warm tea or slippery-elm tea water (slippery-elm tea is supposed to sooth an irritated digestive tract, a condition from which I’m sure the unfortunate patient suffered after all that vomiting).

If under this treatment the patient was fortunate enough to get well the doctor would claim for himself a vast amount of credit for his skill that brought him from the verge of the grave; but if the poor creature died, it was laid to the decree of Providence.

In the early days we had no dentists, and the regular doctors did all the tooth pulling. They carried an instrument called a tooth puller, or “pullikens,” shaped like a gimlet, but with a loose hook that was caught around the tooth, and then a twist of the handle brought out the tooth—sometimes. The price for pulling a tooth was 25 cents.

Erma Wonstetler, born in 1890, wrote in her unpublished memoirs in 1977, Dr. Lee McMillan was the local dentist, I don’t remember if he had an office in his home, but always carried his little black bag with him, he went to a home and did his work. My mother with a string and a little help with a screw driver was always able to pull her children’s first teeth, but my tooth was beyond her type of instruments, so My Father had gone to the store and Dr. Lee was there, he had him come with him to pull my tooth. He sat me in a chair facing the barn, it was a double tooth, he used no cocaine, but started to pull. I started to scream, the family was all in the room, My little sister Hallie was only two years old, she tried to bite his leg, he finally got it out, My Father paid him the standard price twenty five cents. But the thing that hurt me worst, was him going down the path whistling, to hurt a little girl so bad then going away whistling I never liked him after that.

It was primitive, but cheap. And yet there were still undoubtedly complaints about the high cost of medical care.

– Sam Moore

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