My work-in-progress features a minister's daughter in a gold camp of the 1860's. She has an enormous admiration for Florence Nightingale and did some nursing of soldiers in the Civil War before her father took her west.
I thought it might be interesting to look at some diseases and treatments in the second half of the 19th century, with help from The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West:
Bleeding: Home remedies called for using wood ashes or cobwebs to staunch the flow of blood. People also put gunpowder or flour on cuts to staunch bleeding.
Cholera: Treated with red pepper in whiskey or brandy, or burning barrels of pine tar beneath open windows (though that had no real effect). In 1849 on the Santa Fe Trail, Dr. Burchard gave pills compounded of camphor, cayenne pepper, opium and calomel or rectal injections of a medicine made from sugar of lead, laudanum and gum arabica.
Cough: Treated with onion syrup or paregoric (a mixture of opium and camphor). To promote expectoration doctors used carbonate of ammonia or muriate. They also used a mixture of equal parts of linseed oil, honey and Jamaica rum.
[Robin here: My mother gave me and my brother paregoric back in the 50's. I had no idea I was taking opium!]
Fever: Doctors used coal tar derivatives as sleep producers. People also treated fevers with sassafras tea and used aconite to control them. In 1866 a doctor recommended a liniment mixture of sulphuric ether, aqua ammonia, and muriate of ammonia. "Wet the scalp and all painful parts every 2 or 3 hours, or until the pain abates."
Scalping: Often, but not always, fatal. A four-year-old Nebraska boy had his scalp reattached by a doctor using thirty-five sutures. The doctor then put a wet skullcap on the head which was kept wet with a solution of boric acid. The child recovered.
Snakebite: Raw beef slabs or chicken flesh were used to draw out poison as was "vinegar mixed with gunpowder. Some would cauterize the bite with nitrate of silver then give the patient ammonia and whiskey. When a Dr. Woodhouse was snakebit, he utilized every type of treatment he could to cure himself including brandy, whiskey, ammonia water, flaxseed poultice, Dover's Powders, extract of collocynth, tincture of iodine, magnesia calci, Seidlitz powders, potassium iodide and peppermint water. He recovered.
[Robin here: Trust me. I would not recover from all of the brandy and whiskey!]
Yellow Fever: Characterized by chills, high temperatures, headaches, delirium and swollen joints. Treatment included doses of quinine, sulphate of magneis and calomel, which were only partially effective and fatal relapses were common.
Many times through my daily radiation therapy in January and February, I would lay on that table, the machine whirring and clicking as it delivered a particular dose of radiation into my body, and thank God for the advances of modern medicine that allowed doctors to detect and treat my cancer so early.
I suppose back in the 1800s, when a wound was being packed with gunpowder, perhaps someone said the same sort of prayer of thanksgiving. But from our vantage point, it does seem just a bit strange, doesn't it? And maybe 150 years from now, someone will study about how they treated cancer in 2011 and say, "How barbaric!"