Book review: Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850-1900

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Some books give you the most wonderful chills. For some, it comes in the form of a horror novel, a suspense thriller or even something so perfectly crafted you shudder in glee.

The book currently tingling my spine falls under none of these categories, and speaks to my professed fascination with the history of medicine. And it doesn’t get much more scintillating than Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850-1900.

Extra: find who the real Judge Baldwin was here.
  • Extra: Find who the real Judge Baldwin was here.

In this era, people knew a little bit about the body and potential cures, but were still in the dark due to lack of technology and a reliance on “heroic medicine,” characterized by emptying the body of surplus humors via bloodletting or administering enemas.

The first half of the book focuses on how this approach often exacerbated the illness. A patient dying from cholera might be given numerous enemas and powerful purgatives. (No modern medical degree is required to know that this is the worst possible thing you can do for cholera.)

However, most Western folks had to rely on themselves to overcome injuries and sicknesses. Many were far from the help of a doctor, which was also expensive. Emergencies aside, chronic conditions like arthritis were treated with anecdotal therapies; a beaver pelt on the hip was said to be good for asthma.

Home remedies could do even less for catastrophic problems, illustrated chillingly in chapters 7 and 8, “From Sawbones to Surgeon” and “The Hazards of Western Industry.”

Some facts:

• In war: A fast surgeon could amputate a limb and tie off the stump in 2 to 3 minutes. And that would be a blessing if he cleaned his knives and saws.

• In the mines: Continued exposure to nitroglycerin (the key ingredient in dynamite) caused chronic pounding headaches, low blood pressure and bloodshot eyes. Of course, these were probably the least of your problems, considering that dynamite sticks were known to explode unpredictably and hoist cars were frequently dropped to the bottom of the elevator shaft.

• In the smelter: Mercury was used to lift gold from rocks, and the resulting fumes caused long-term workers to drool and shake uncontrollably, loose their teeth and eventually go insane from “brain decay.”

The surrounding towns of such locales were no better: Sewers and clean sources of water were few, and most dead animals were left where they dropped. The book cites one man in Alaska who bragged he could cross the street without touching the ground. He did just that, by hopping on the horse corpses.

This kind of reading sounds barbaric, but it does make you thankful to live in the times we do, with OSHA, Ibuprofen and advanced medical treatment.

And author Jeremy Agnew, like most authors of his ilk, treats his subject matter with the utmost respect. Agnew keeps the obvious judgments to himself (see cholera and purging above), just telling the story.

Love it. Buy it.

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