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Monday, April 19, 2010

Frontier Medicine

In my novella SALVATION BRIDE, the heroine Laura Slade, is a trained doctor. Set in the 1870’s, this was not common, but possible. By this time, several medical schools admitted women. Laura, however, didn’t. Instead, she apprenticed under her Uncle John, who had been to medical school and served as a doctor in the Civil War.

More common in the 19th Century women were home-trained healers and midwives, who learned the art of healing from their mothers and grandmothers. My current work in progress takes place in the 1860’s shortly after the Civil War. The hero, Garrison and the heroine, Sammie, are on a wagon train heading West. Sammie has been trained as a healer by her mother. She takes with her on the trip her medicine chest.

The chest would contain such items as those listed in BLEED, BLISTER, AND PURGE by Volney Steele, M.D. Common household remedies would be “feverfew, fleabane, boneset, rhubarb, oak of Jerusalem, thyme [and] marjoram,” (page 138). A few store-bought items would also be included: Opium tincture or laudanum and whiskey for pain and surgeon’s plaster to bind broken limbs (the latter comes in handy when Garrison breaks a bone during the trip).

Sammie would know how to make poultices to relieve pain, help heal burns and possibly, even, to prevent pregnancy. She’d make plaster of mustard to “ease the ache of bruises, arthritis, and pleurisy.” She might even apply sugar to wounds, once commonly known to dry out a fresh wound and inhibit the growth of bacteria. (page 143).

Cholera was the most common and the deadliest disease to sweep through a wagon train or settlement. It wasn’t understood at the time that cholera was caused by contaminated drinking water. The best way to fight the disease was to replace fluids ‘volume to volume” as the patient suffered from severe diarrhea. However, this treatment was not well known. Opium, if available, was also given to “relieve the pain and slow down the increased bowel action and cramps,” (page 80).

Diphtheria, measles, small pox and scarlet fever were all deadly diseases, especially among children, with no cures but to wait it out. Diphtheria, in particular, was the most dreaded. Highly contagious, a single case could start an epidemic, resulting in a high number of children dying when a “pseudo-membrane in the throat and pharynx…obstructed the windpipe and shut off air to the lungs.” If the child survived this, she might still die from heart failure, caused when a potent toxin was secreted that effected the heart, (page 264).

One often overlooked disease on the frontier was scurvy, which was almost as deadly to the immigrants as cholera. With a common diet of corn meal, flour, beans and boiled or salted beef and few fresh vegetables and fruit, scurvy ran rampant in the West. Scurvy affects the overall health of the patient, causing extreme fatigue, nausea, pain in the muscles and joints of the body, bleeding of the gums (oftentimes resulting in the loss of teeth) and hair and skin become dry. The simple cure for scurvy is the intake of Vitamin C, but the correlation between diet and scurvy was not discovered until the late 1800’s. Ironically, a common native plant along the trail, watercress, was full of Vitamin C and would have been a simple cure to this disease, if the immigrants had only known.

Many an immigrant’s diary is filled with entries of sickness and death on the journey. In COVERED WAGON WOMEN by Kenneth Holmes, two journalists note such occurrences. Anna King, on page 42, relates, “I wrote to you at Fort Larim that the whooping cough and measles went through our camp, and after we took the new route a slow, lingering fever prevailed….Eight of our two families have gone to their long home. Upwards to fifty died on the new route.”

Sallie Hester reports “We had two deaths in our train within the past week of cholera – young men going West to seek their fortune. We buried them on the banks of the Blue River, far from home and friends,” (page 237).

By today’s standards, medicine in the 19th Century was crude in the best of hospitals. On the frontier, it was downright rudimentary. As much as I’d love to give my heroines insight to the knowledge we have now, I shall have to resist and let them heal their patience with the remedies tired and true at the times.


I’ll give away a copy of SALVATION BRIDE, an best-seller from The Wild Rose Press to one lucky commenter. Also, anyone leaving a comment on my blog today will be eligible for the Seduced by History monthly prize, a book bag full of romance novels (see left for the details).

Anna Kathryn Lanier

Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats


Obe said...

Its a wonder California is populated at all. Great information. It only goes to prove that women were the backbone of any exploration. Weaker sex,humph, I beg to differ.
Loved this blog.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Thanks, Nan. Yes, the gumption of the frontier woman is greatly overlooked. I find the diaries fascinating. It amazes me what they went through and the loved ones they buried along the way....yet, they still survived.

Rebecca Lynn said...

This is such a fantastic post. I will definitely be reading your book. Having grown up on the prairies, where it can still feel like the frontier, especially in rural areas, I do love to read books like this.

Thanks for a great post!!

Kathleen Bittner Roth said...

This is great info and wonderful blog. Also, something I can use today. I didn't know watercress was a vitamin C food. We have it growing like crazy in our balcony planter boxes and here I am a few steps away from it. I am restricted on many foods that contain vitamin C...this is so good to know.

D'Ann said...

My grandmother qualified as a frontier woman, and she was a great healer. I don't think she had a stitch of training, but her mother was wheelchair and bed bound most of my Grandmother's teen life, and she cared for her mother until she died.
Those women were tuff!

Virginia said...

Hi Anna, great post! You are so right about todays medicine, its came a long why from the 19 century! They did the best they could with the knowledge they had then, I'm amazed that anyone survived with all the bleeding they used!


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Tahnks for stopping by, Rebecca, Kathleen and D'Ann. I love learning about this stuff, but am not so sure of myself to put it into the story, but I will. Sammie is going to be busy in the trail helping people, including a few births.....

I find it interesting, especially some of the ideas back then of bleeding patients. But at the same time, we've lost some of their knowledge for healing that did do good.

The Barn Door said...

Very interesting research info. Amazing that anyone ever made it through such devastating diseases. Hard to realize that poor souls were lost along the way and lay in unknown and unmarked graves. Sad.

Cheryl said...

Great post! My mother, grandmother, and great grandmother were all wonderful "healers"--I remember some of the things my mom told me they did when she was a child--one was, for her little sister who always had earaches, my granddad would light a cigarette, take a puff and blow the smoke slowly into her ear to ease the pain. My grandmother had 11 kids and never lost any of them. Women of that time were unbelievably tough, and stoic, to go through the losses that they did.

I can't wait to read your book, Anna! Keeping my fingers cross to win! LOL Loved your post.


Sally said...

In that era 'survival of the fittest' was the way of things. The frontier was full of hardy souls as they were the only ones to survive the trip. The emotional toll a trip west would take is hard to imagine. I, too, think we've lost important knowledge in the healing properties of plants and items at our fingertips but I won't argue the convenience of opening my cabinet and taking an ibuprofen for an ache or pain.

Virginia C said...

Thank you, Anna Kathryn! What a wonderful post! My favorite era is the American Old West of the mid to late 1800's. I have always thought that women make better doctors. We are natural nurturers and healers. We also have to deal with menstrual discomforts and childbirth. Many women love cooking and recipes, so we would be quite adept at preparing medicines and herbal remedies.

I have long admired the strength of pioneer and frontier women. Many of them had to leave their cherished keepsakes along the trail in order for the wagon loads to be lightened. There were also great personal losses along the way, and loved ones were buried where they died. The journey continued for the survivors, and people often had to band together and form new "families" in order to live from day to day.

I loved the TV show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman". It's one of my all-time favorites. I think that it did an excellent job of portraying the difficulties faced by woman physicians of the 19th century. Dr. Quinn incorporated many herbal medicines into her practice as a healer. She was continually learning from the Native Americans who became her friends as well as her teachers. One should never stop learning. We should always keep an open heart and a curious mind.

gcwhiskas at aol dot com

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Virginia, The Barn Door, Sally and Cheryl. Thanks for stopping by. I started out wanting to write Regencies, but I've found the Old West has drawn me to it. I find that era very interesting.

Margaret Tanner said...

Wow, so interesting and very true. In frontier Australia, the same things happened to our pioneering settlers. You have to wonder how anyone survived.



Julie LaLonde said...

Wonderful blog. I always enjoy stories about women as healers and how medicine were used in the 'good ole days' --yeah right--I wouldn't have survived!
I used to love Little House on the Prairie and like reading about the founding of this country. And SOME people think they had/have it so rough.
I would love to read your story.

P.L. Parker said...

I too did a huge amount of research for my Cactus Rose novel. Amazing how things have changed in such a short time when you consider the thousands of years. Indian attacks were down on the list of really big problems on a wagon train. Disease was a huge problem and there was very little they could do about it when an epidemic hit. I'm not tough enough for those times.

Paty Jager said...

Great information. It always amazes me how our ancestors lived with all that plagued them and how they managed to figure out what plants handled what ailment. Same with the Native Americans.

Kathryn Albright said...

Very much enjoyed your post Anna Kathryn! I'll have to check out that book. It sounds great for research. My grandmother talked about coming down with a fever during the 1918 influenza when she was ten years old. Her father took her out to the Potomac River (it was sumertime)in order to sleep where it was cooler. (She didn't remember being swarmed by misquitos--guess they weren't so prevelant then.) Also her mother made a mustard plaster to draw the fever out. She credits that plaster with saving her life. Thanks for the informative blog!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, again. Thanks for stopping by Virginia, P.L., Paty, Maragret, Julie, and Kathryn. I highly recommend Bleed, Blister and Purge to anyone who is writing in the old west...he has chapters on Native healing, Civil War doctors, epidemics, women doctors, Granny's rememdies, and the flu epidemic of 1918.

Carol L. said...

Hi Anna,
What an informative post. Great research too. These were some strong pioneers.Strength and backbone were a definite must for women back then. Nothing was easy and loss of loved ones constant. True heroines. I loved this post. Thanks for sharing Anna.
Carol L.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Congratulations to Kathryn A. She won the copy of Salvation Bride. Thanks for all the comments and good luck in the Seduced by History monthly drawing!

misskallie2000 said...

I love to learn history while I am reading a book that is not a history book. It makes you wonder how may were lost on all these moves to the west. I would say more were lost than arrived at their destination.
I just discovered this blog and now follow. I love it. Thanks

misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

Brandy said...

I am amazed at the amount of research that you do for your books. I guess i never thought about it, I love historicals but I never considered what you would have to do to write one!!!