December 17, 2008

Frontier Medicine not like Dr. Quinn

The Wild, Wild Doctoring in the Wild, Wild WestBear attacks. Syphilis. Bullet wounds. Malaria. Scalpings. Cholera. Arrows shot into the skull. Scurvy. Rabies. Ax mishaps. Crushings by moving wagon wheels. Outsize tumors. Snake bites.

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.
And:Mr. Dary’s book is a close examination of an era when very few people knew, medically, quite what they were doing. Doctoring was generally an amateur activity at best; the cures were often far worse than the diseases. The benefits of hygiene were not understood; bathing was thought to remove crucial oils from the skin; and the importance of proper sanitation had not been noted.

“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.”
Comment:  Some of these medical disasters made it into the Into the West mini-series. But somehow they never made it into Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. For instance, Civil War surgeons had to amputate soldier's gangrenous legs by sawing them off--often without an anesthetic. Will we see Dr. Quinn sawing off someone's leg in a future episode?

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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