What It Was Like Going To A Doctor In Wild West - The Comprehensive Minds

What It Was Like Going To A Doctor In Wild West

If you were an early settler in the Wild West and got sick, you had three healthcare options. One, find a doctor and hope their strange potions numbed your pain. Two, figure out how to cure your own ailment. Or three, die. 

Of course, if you were able to find a doctor, you'd probably die anyway, because they sort of just winged it as they went along. Today, we're going to discover what it was like going to a doctor in the Wild West.  



Doctors Fought To The End Over Their Territory 

Doctors Fought To The End Over Their Territory

Now, you have to remember the state of medicine in the Old West. It wasn't so much of science yet as it was a way to make money. Sure, you had a lot of doctors in it for altruistic reasons, but for the most part, medicine was a cutthroat business. 

When a new physician established an office in a smaller town that already had a doctor, things could get ugly fast, as they'd usually become territorial. Two doctors in one town meant they'd have to split profits. 

One of the more infamous incidents of dueling doctors took place when Dr. Edward Willis moved to Placerville, California, which was then called Hangtown. Upon his arrival, Dr. Willis pitched a tent that would serve as his home and medical office. He then hung a sign above his door announcing his services as doctor and surgeon. 

None of this was cool with Doc Hullings, the first doctor to open a medical practice in the burgeoning mining camp. Hullings immediately walked over to the new doctor's tent and ordered him out of town. Dr. Willis calmly told Hullingshe wasn't going anywhere then turned his back on him, and then ordered him out of his tent. 


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Incensed, Hullingsstormed out and came up with a plan, which wasn't so much of a plan as it was just him showing up several days later with a backup of several well-armed Hangtown gold miners. Hullings demanded Willis produce a diploma, which he promptly did. Hullings tore it in half and tossed it to the ground. 

Mr. Paul Clam, a friend of Dr. Willis, witnessed the exchange and then punched Doc Hullings. Hullings escalated the fight, challenging Clam and Willis to a duel with pistols. This duel was held in an abandoned mining pit. After the Sheriff yelled"Fire," both men shot, and both men went down. Clam was badly wounded from three body shots. 

Doc Hullings was slightly more wounded. He was dead According to miners' law, any man who abandoned his claim also gave up all rights to his land. Since Doc Hullings was dead, He had technically abandoned his claim, and Dr. Willis instantly became the town's sole physician. His first job was to save Mr. Clam's life, and his first official act was to sign Doc Hullings's death certificate.  



Untrained Doctors Performed Experimental Procedures 

Untrained Doctors Performed Experimental Procedures

The doctor was an extremely vague title people gave themselves in the Wild West. While some had formal training, one didn't need a fancy degree or any real formal hands-on experience. All you needed was a bag full of unsterilized surgical tools and the ability to convince people you knew what you were doing. 

And because there was a shortage of medical professionals on the frontier,becoming a doctor was as simple as calling yourself a doctor. For example, in 1827, a janitor performed the first cesarean section in the West. 

John Richmond worked as a janitor at a medical school, and while he was there, he'd listen in on lectures and take mental notes. Eventually, he quit his janitorial gig, then called himself a doctor and performed a c-section without ever observing one or cutting into a human body, for that matter. 

Richmond wrote, "Finding that whatever was done must be done soon and feeling a deep and solemn sense of my responsibility, with only a case of common pocket instruments, about1 o'clock at night, I commenced the cesarean section. The patient never complained of pain during the whole course of the cure." That said, Dr. Richmondmight has exaggerated a bit, as the accounts of the c-section have been debated. 

While the woman survived the shady procedure, the child did not. And in her 2018 book CesareanSection, An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence, Jacqueline H. Wolf wrote. "The mother begged him to stop. 

She couldn't endure the pain." As barbaric as Richmond'sattempted c-section was, it's the first published account of an attempted cesarean performed in the United States.  



Bleed Blister & Purge Was The Mantra Of Many Pioneer Doctors

Bleed Blister & Purge Was The Mantra Of Many Pioneer Doctors

For every John Richmond, there were formally trained doctors who had an idea of what they were doing. But even these medical professionals relied on dangerous and highly experimental treatments. 

Dr. Daniel Drake, a founder of Ohio's first medical college, strongly advised bleeding for patients whose pulse is nearly imperceptible. If the doctor's lancet couldn't induce blood flow from a vein. Yes, the majority of patients who underwent bloodletting through their jugular had a prognosis you'd probably predict. They perished. 

Blister treatments were another one of the more confusing treatments these doctors regularly performed. This questionable practice called for a doctor to cover a portion of the skin with crushed chili peppers to produce hyperemia. 


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The chili paste would produce a very powerful counter-irritation so that the pain of the blisters would override the painful condition being treated, sort of like hitting your head with a hammer if you had a stomach ache. 

Purgation was another go-to treatment these Old West doctors liked to suggest to their patients. If a doctor suggested you purge, you would be ordered to swallow calomel, a mercury-based drug that made you evacuate your bowels with the velocity of a broken frozen yogurt machine. The hope here was that the purging would get rid of the black bilein one's stomach, but it rarely healed anyone.  



Doctors Were Sometimes Accused Of Doing The Devil's Work

Doctors Were Sometimes Accused Of Doing The Devil's Work

As medieval as medicines seemed in the Old West, it's no surprise that common folk was alarmed by some of the practices these new doctors sprung on them. When doctors sliced open human bodies or performed unorthodox surgeries to save patients' lives, it really freaked people out. 

One frontier doctor reported that he opened the throat of a child choking with diphtheria and kept the windpipe open with fish hooks. Now, imagine it's1875, and you see this. You'd probably flip out, too. It's no surprise that some people believed doctors were performing satanic rituals. 

In another case, the famed surgeon Dr. Ephraim McDowell performed a messy operation on a 45-year-old Kentucky woman named Jane Crawford. McDowell was summoned to the Crawford farmhouse to assist in what was thought to be long-overdue childbirth. McDowell soon found that Crawford wasn't pregnant. 

She was suffering from a massive ovarian tumor. Dr. McDowell then suggested the removal of the tumor, a surgery that had never been attempted before. Eventually, Dr. McDowell was able to extract Crawford's, tumor all 22 pounds of it. That said, he had a difficult time with some of the townsmen, who thought he was doing the work of the devil. 

Superstition and taboos contributed to the talk that McDowell was doing something otherworldly in his office. His patient survived a 25-minute procedure without anesthetics, but accusations of satanic practices followed most surgeons of the era, even when they saved the odd life.  



Women Were Doctors

Women Were Doctors

While the majority of the frontier's doctors were men, the Old West provided lots of opportunities for women. Yeah, there was some basis of facts from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In 1874, Dr.Bethenia Owens-Adair studied at the EclecticMedical College of Pennsylvania and in 1874 earned her MD from the University of Michigan's medical school

She moved to Oregon, where she practiced medicine in Portland and Astoria. As Dr. Owens-Adair described, practicing medicine in the west was a major challenge. "I carried out my professional work as best I could in that out-of-the-way place. And at no time did I ever refuse a call, day or night, rain or shine. 

Through trails, so overhang with dense undergrowth and obstructed with logs and that a horse and rider could not get past, and through muddy and flooded tidelands in gumboots." Interesting facts about Dr. Owens-Adair, she was a big proponent of the eugenics movement. 

In 1909, she supported a bill to sterilize criminals, epileptics, the insane, and the feeble-minded. The bill actually passed the Oregon legislature, but the governor at the time refused to sign it into law, although the bill became law eight years later. A similar bill became law in nearby Washington State in 1909, largely due to the doctor's efforts.  



Doctors Charged About 25 cents to $1 Per Visit But Most Patients Bartered

Doctors Charged About 25 cents to $1 Per Visit But Most Patients Bartered

While many untrained frontier doctors got into medicine to turn a quick profit, they really didn't make a whole lot of money. Not in the small towns, anyway. Doctors of the era usually charged $0.25 for a visit, while extended visits, including overnight care, might cost up to a dollar. 

However, many patients couldn't afford to pay doctors in legal tender. Instead, these cash-poor patients paid for their medical care in goods or services, usually in the form of a bundle of wood, produce, aside from beef, eggs, blankets, or other items of value lying around. Some doctors even offered a discount on medical services on house calls if their patients fed their horses.  



Many Physicians Were Also Druggists

Many Physicians Were Also Druggists

Frontier doctors didn't just treat patients, a lot of them also had side hustles as druggists. Yep, even these physicians weren't formally schooled, they often made and sold their own medicines. While some settlers living on the open range in the middle of nowhere usually had to grit their teeth and suffer through their malady with whiskey, settlers in developed towns were able to visit their local apothecary, the drugstore of their day. 

The druggists at these apothecaries diagnosed problems, gave advice, and sold their homemade remedies. Remember, most drug laws in the US never came into effect until after 1900, so these druggists were free to sell whatever they think might cure their patients. 

Medicines made by frontier druggists were usually based around raw herbs, leaves, and roots. If you study the ingredients of these early serums, you'll note that many of them have foundations and remedies concocted by Native American Indians

Of course, many frontier doctors looked down on Native Americans. Naturally, they rejected anything associated with them, even though their natural plant-based serums were derivative of what the NativeAmerican Indians had been practicing for generations. 

While advanced medicine was making great leaps and bounds in other developed parts of the world doctors, in the Wild West just didn't know what the hell they were doing. 

Nowadays, you should feel better about going to the doctor, right? But what do you think? Who would you go to if you caught a fever, knowing your doctor would tell you to drink sulfur with a whiskey chaser? 

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