The Doctor Is In! Part 2 of 4
By : Teresa Divilio, Museum Co-op Student
Last week I wrote about herbal remedies used by the pioneers which, surprisingly, were effective. This week, I’m writing about what happens when your garden can no longer heal you- a dreaded visit from the local “doctor”.
In the 1800s, seeing a doctor was more often than not very unhealthy and even downright dangerous. Many of the “cures” prescribed by doctors were poisonous to humans. For example, a common medicine prescribed for a variety of illnesses was Calomel, otherwise known as mercury. Many patients ended up far sicker after seeing the doctor, as the cures prescribed were often much worse than the original illness. Often, the doctor of the village was merely a pastor or farmer who wanted to help those around him. Doctors had no formal training, and made house calls. The doctor would travel far and wide, and by the time he would see a patient, it would be too late.
It was for these reasons and a few more that many people turned to apothecaries and “miracle elixirs” sold by travelling doctors. Because of the Temperance Movement in Canada and Prohibition in the United States, many pioneer towns were dry towns. Many “doctors” took advantage of this, creating “elixirs” that were basically alcohol masqueraded as medicine. The high alcohol content in these “elixirs” did nothing to cure the patients, but often got them drunk enough to not care. It was common to see fancy bottles of questionable liquid being peddled by a travelling salesman, claiming to be selling a great cure-all that will solve all your health problems, ranging from diabetes to back aches to kidney stones. These salesmen were often more respected than the town doctor, regardless of the fact that they too were killing many settlers with their elixirs. Doctors were often blamed for deaths occurring in a village, even if the death was a result of the elixir the patient had been taking.
Next week we’ll shift the focus from medicines to medical practices, starting with the philosophy of the four humors and the practice of phlebotomy- bloodletting.