In the early 1800’s it was generally believed that illness and disease were caused by an accumulation of “poisons” in the body, and that if these poisons could be eliminated, the patient would recover their health.
There were three main therapeutic principles for treatment of disease:
1. Bleeding by opening a vein or use of leeches
2. Purging the gastrointestinal system with laxatives, emetics (agents which cause vomiting) and enemas
3. Sweating or blistering
People who lived in the 18th and early 19th Centuries were largely helpless in the matter of health. They lived in constant dread of sudden death from disease, plague, epidemic, pneumonia, or accident.
Their letters always began and usually ended with assurances of the good health of the letter writer, a query about the health of the recipient, and a wish for continuing good health for all.
Most doctors during this period learned their trade through apprenticeship and started as young as 15 years of age. Since, at the time, this was considered “middle age” it puts things in perspective. Most physicians opened their practices without the benefits of any degree or advanced training. Licensing of physicians was sporadic and medical practices were never inspected.
Quacks and charlatans practiced virtually unchecked. Distrust of physicians ran high during these times, and often those afflicted with illness would attempt their own treatments through folk medicine or Indian remedies before resorting to “professional care.”
The Mountain Men, although experiencing all manner of wounds, lacerations, hypothermia and the like, may have had more successful recoveries from some illnesses, precisely because they lacked access to “professional” medical care.
The list below provides the content of The Lewis and Clark Expedition’s medicine chest:
Basilicum Ointment, Benzoin,
Calamine, Cinnamon, Cloves, Copaiboe, Cream of Tarter,
Glauber Salts, Gum Camphor, Gum Elastic,
Laudanum, Lead Acetate,
Magnesia, Mercury Ointment,
Root Colombo, Rhubarb, Rush Pills (Thunderbolts),
Saltpeter, Sulfate, Sulfuric Acid,
Tarter Emetic, Tragacanth,
White vitriol, Wintergreen