A Few 19th Century Medical Treatments

By Patricia Grady Cox

September 9, 2015

Early Surgery using carbolic sprayer to disinfect the incision site, while doctors wear street clothes.

Early Surgery using carbolic sprayer to disinfect the incision site, while doctors wear street clothes.

Sometimes horrible things befall our characters. They get shot, penetrated by arrows, bitten by rattlesnakes, catch horrible diseases, and develop addictions. At least these are a just a few of the tragedies that have befallen my characters! They really should be more careful.

When these situations crop up, I research as best I can to see how it would have been handled in the late 1800s. I am not an expert in 19th century medicine, but I do try to be authentic about the particular medical problems suffered by my characters.

I’ve sometimes been pleasantly surprised, as when I discovered that by the mid to late 1800s surgery for many injuries, including bullet wounds, was performed using anesthesia (chloroform and, later, ether) and with an eye toward disinfecting (carbolic acid). This, of course, was if a doctor was available. Otherwise: whisky.

Sister Sara is about to hit that arrow shaft with a rock while Hogan drinks copious amounts of whisky. From "Two Mules for Sister Sara"

Sister Sara is about to hit that arrow shaft with a rock while Hogan drinks copious amounts of whisky. From “Two Mules for Sister Sara”

I learned that arrowheads were not securely attached to the arrow’s shaft. Often it just sat in a notch. Trying to pull an arrow out would result in the arrowhead dislodging and remaining embedded in the body. The best way to remove an arrow was to break off the end of the shaft and then whack the broken end to force the arrowhead out the other side of the body (as accurately portrayed in the movie Two Mules for Sister Sara). Of course, there would be considerable whisky consumption involved (also accurately portrayed).

The primary “treatment” for snake bite was whisky. If the patient consumed so much whisky that he began to vomit, add hartshorn (a precursor of baking powder). If this didn’t work, or the patient passed out, a milk and whisky concoction was “injected into the rectum. ”

All of this is after the initial immediate treatments of cutting, sucking, piercing the bite with sharp sticks dipped in ammonia, and applying snake stones to suck out the poison. A most-welcome death usually resulted. Just shoot me.

Add for a heroin-based cough medicine which claims superiority to the old opium-morphine-codeine concoctions commonly used.

Ad for a heroin-based cough medicine which claims superiority to the old opium-morphine-codeine concoctions commonly used.

As far as the many contagious diseases that ravaged the old west, doctors had access to quinine (to reduce fever) and laudanum (for pain), and that was about it. If your body’s natural defenses didn’t kick in, it was usually a quick trip to the cemetery. You could get medicine, though,to help with troublesome symptoms such as coughing.

Which leads us to addiction, pretty much a regular part of life. All the horrible drugs that result in decades of imprisonment nowadays were legal: marijuana, heroin, cocaine, opium, hashish (hasheesh back then, sold as candy). They put a lot of these ingredients into a “Soothing Syrup” which was marketed to mothers to help with irritable babies. Soothing Syrup probably contributed to the high rate of infant mortality. A better solution would have been to have the mothers drink it. Which reminds me of the Rolling Stones song, “Mother’s Little Helper.” Sometimes things don’t change that much!

Does this information make you glad you live in the 21st century?

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3 comments

  1. Ha, ha, very entertainingly explained – at least from where I’m sitting!

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    1. I recently watched a few episodes of the HBO series Deadwood in which Al Swearengen is “treated” for kidney stones. That gruesome procedure inspired me to share some other medical news from that century. This is the ONE issue that always makes me happy I was born in the 1900s! Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. :o)

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  2. […] I’m still reeling from the prescribed treatment for snakebite (see my Sept. 9th blog). The ammonia sticks pushed me over the […]

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