There were many ways to die in frontier America, plenty of them gruesome. In his new book, “Frontier Medicine,” the historian David Dary relates the story of westward expansion while examining these misfortunes, and many others, from the point of view of men and women who tried to heal the often ruinously injured. The results are both a horror show and undeniably engrossing: “MASH” meets Zane Grey and Edgar Allan Poe.
“Frontier Medicine” contrasts the “heroic medicine” practiced by some English and colonial doctors—bloodletting, blistering and other medieval-sounding acts—with the practices of American Indian healers, who often relied on herbs. Mr. Dary has enormous respect for early Indian cures, and he deplores the way the English ignored them.
“Most English looked down on the native peoples and considered them savages,” he writes, “and rejected anything associated with them.”
Over time, American Indian practices did catch on. “It is fair to say,” Mr. Dary writes, “that Indian medical knowledge is what gives early American medicine its particular character.”
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.