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Frontier Medicine: From the Atlantic to the Pacific, 1492-1941by David Dary
Synopses & Reviews
In his new book, David Dary, one of our leading social historians, gives us a fascinating, informative account of American frontier medicine from our Indian past to the beginning of World War II, as the frontier moved steadily westward from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Ocean.
He begins with the early arrivals to our shores and explains how their combined European-taught medical skills and the Indians well-developed knowledge of local herbal remedies and psychic healing formed the foundation of early American medicine.
We then follow white settlement west, learning how, in the 1720s, seventy-five years before Edward Jenners experiments with smallpox vaccine, a Boston doctor learned from an African slave how to vaccinate against the disease; how, in 1809, a backwoods Kentucky doctor performed the first successful abdominal surgery; how, around 1820, a Missouri doctor realized quinine could prevent as well as cure malaria and made a fortune from the resulting pills he invented.
Using diaries, journals, newspapers, letters, advertisements, medical records, and pharmacological writings, Dary gives us firsthand accounts of Indian cures; the ingenious self-healings of mountain men; home remedies settlers carried across the plains; an early “HMO” formed by Wyoming ranchers and cowboys to provide themselves with medical care; the indispensable role of country doctors and midwives; the fortunes made from patent medicines and quack cures; the contributions of army medicine; Chinese herbalists; the formation of the American Medical Association; the first black doctors; the first women doctors; and finally the early-twentieth-century shift to a formal scientific approach to medicine that by the postwar period had for the most part eliminated the trial-and-error practical methods that were at the center of frontier medicine.
A wonderful—often entertaining—overview of the complexity, energy, and inventiveness of the ways in which our forebears were doctored and how our medical system came into being.
"Scurvy, contaminated water and challenging environments were among the medical problems faced by frontier settlers, who resorted to the rough-and-ready treatments of herbal and traditional medicines, quack concoctions and whatever worked. This is the story prolific western writer Dary (The Oregon Trail) provides in a deeply researched, anecdotal history. Fourteen chapters range from 'Indian Medicine' and 'In Western Towns' to 'Quacks' and 'Midwives and Women Doctors.' A skilled storyteller, Dary fills each chapter with tales of doctors (not always well trained) and patients, colorful events, important discoveries and a seemingly endless pharmacopeia of herbal recipes and drugs, beliefs and often gruesome medical procedures. Dary agrees with today's experts that doctors in that era who practiced 'heroic medicine' — bleeding, purging, administering emetics and toxic metals such as mercury and arsenic — did more harm than good. Fortunately, even quacks were too expensive for most settlers, who preferred home remedies. Dary argues that traditional Native American treatments were less harmful and probably more effective. Readers looking for a more insightful history of medicine should choose one by Roy Porter, but this collection of stories of frontier healers will satisfy many readers. 81 illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Among the first things exchanged by European settlers and Native Americans were diseases and medical treatments. The Europeans gave the natives measles, yellow fever and smallpox; when the Indians tried to cure these contagions with traditional methods, such as bringing people together in sweat houses, they only spread the diseases more rapidly. But Native American remedies did seem to help with other... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) maladies. In "Frontier Medicine," his entertaining and informative history of medical care on America's westward-moving frontier, David Dary recounts the story of German physician John Lederer, who was bitten on the finger by a venomous spider while exploring the Appalachian Mountains in 1670. His Indian guide treated Lederer by sucking out the poison and applying a plaster made from the root of the plant now called snakeroot. Lederer recovered and, a few days later, became the first recorded European to see the Shenandoah Valley. Though some were inclined to view Indians as savages, settlers were not surprised to find native remedies effective; after all, Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries believed in a Law of Correspondences, which held that cures could be often found in the same locales where diseases occur. Among the native medicines adopted by many colonists, according to Dary, were a combination of animal grease and powdered hellebore root for wounds and the dried root bark of the wahoo tree as a mild purgative and heart stimulant. Many of the earliest books to come out of the English colonies between 1670 and 1740 were natural histories documenting medicinal plants. The first American self-help manual may have been "Every Man His Own Doctor; Or, The Poor Planter's Physician," published in 1734 by John Tennent, who had arrived in Virginia's Spotsylvania County from England just 10 years earlier. It described many Native American herbal remedies, including chewing willow bark for headaches, applying witch hazel to sore muscles and eating raspberries to control diarrhea. But the most enduringly popular of these books was "Gunn's Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man's Friend," which remained continuously in print from 1830 to 1920 and is mentioned in both Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and John Steinbeck's "East of Eden." Of course, medical knowledge also moved in the opposite direction, from the Europeans to the Indians. In the 1530s, the Spanish explorer and physician Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca treated an Indian wounded by an arrow in the shoulder; by Cabeza de Vaca's account, he cut out the arrow point and sewed up the incision with a deer-bone needle, after which the Indians danced in celebration. But from 1492 until as late as 1942, people living on America's western frontier often found themselves without a doctor — and often, Dary shows, that was not such a bad thing. The rarity of physicians in the rural West reduced the use of such common European practices as bleeding by lancet or leeches, blistering with noxious substances such as mustard plaster, induced vomiting (called puking) and forced diarrhea (known as purging) — a battery of treatments of which Francis Bacon had said, "The remedy is worse than the disease." By the 1850s, natural remedies were a well-established form of health care in America. During the Civil War, the Confederacy had difficulty obtaining manufactured medicines and published a pamphlet listing treatments with plants, including snakeroot, sassafras, partridgeberry, lavender and dogwood. Toward the end of the war, Confederate medical kits routinely contained such remedies. "Frontier Medicine" is fast-paced and engaging, rich with colorful events and characters, including a semi-autobiographical chapter about the author's grandfather, a physician in rural Kansas at the turn of the 20th century. But Dary stops short of presenting a thesis about what can be learned from these stories. Particularly disappointing is the chapter titled Quacks (from the German "quacksalver," or mercury), in which the author ducks the main issues. After 12 chapters describing the usefulness of natural remedies from the 1500s to the 1850s, "Frontier Medicine" suddenly begins to label practitioners of natural medicine as quacks, indiscriminately lumping them with true charlatans like Thomas Alva Edison Jr., the famous inventor's son, who marketed a "Magno-Electric Vitalizer" as a cure for everything from deafness to rheumatism. The great, unexamined assumption for today's reader is that the natural healing of frontier medicine somehow became quackery at around the same time the American Medical Association was organized, in 1847. This attitude betrays something of a triumphalist approach to the wonders of modern medicine. In today's economy, many Americans may find themselves back on the medical frontier. This book illustrates that it is often ancient knowledge and wisdom about healing that, adapted to new circumstances, provides truly innovative approaches to health problems. Reviewed by Marc S. Micozzi, who teaches patho-physiology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Dary offers this fascinating, informative, and consistently surprising account of American medicine in its myriad forms, from the nation's Indian past to the beginning of World War II.
About the Author
David Dary is the author of more than a dozen previous books including The Buffalo
Book, Cowboy Culture, Entrepreneurs of the Old West, Seeking Pleasure in the Old West, Red Blood and Black Ink, The Santa Fe Trail, The Oregon Trail, and True Tales of the Prairies and Plains. He is the recipient of two Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, two Western Writers of America Spur Awards, the WWAs Wister Owen Award for lifetime achievement, the Westerners International Best Nonfiction Book Award, and the Oklahoma Center for the Book 2008 Arrell Gibson Award for lifetime achievement. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Indian Medicine
Chapter Two: Early American Medicine
Chapter Three: Over the Appalachians
Chapter Four: Beyond the Mississippi
Chapter Five: Fur Traders and Trappers
Chapter Six: On the Oregon Trail
Chapter Seven: Among the Soldiers
Chapter Eight: On Homestead and Ranch
Chapter Nine: In Western Towns
Chapter Ten: Going West for Your Health
Chapter Eleven: Midwives and Women Doctors
Chapter Twelve: Patent Medicines
Chapter Thirteen: Quacks
Chapter Fourteen: Into the Twentieth Century
Appendix: Epidemics in North America, 1616-1950
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