Saturday, July 30, 2011


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

As a writer of historical fiction, I am fascinated with daily life in other time periods. I even think, on occasion, how great it would be to travel back in time for a little while. However, I usually change my mind when I think about the medical and dental care, not to mention medicines, available. Because of the scientific advancements and technology we now enjoy, it's mind-boggling to think about the treatments prescribed to people in the past…and their adverse and often fatal effects.

In the early 19th century, especially in the American West, settlers were isolated, living far from civilization and forced to rely upon themselves in times of injury and illness. Patent medicines (what we consider over-the-counter medicines today)were not readily available. But as more people moved west and towns were established, doctors (as well as medicine shows), arrived and brought with them methods of treatment that were often inaccurate and poisonous. Although most frontier doctors spoke against the traveling medicine shows peddling their miracle cures, even physicians prescribed treatment that were toxic and addictive.

For example, it was not uncommon for lead, mercury, and arsenic—all very poisonous—to be dispensed as medicine. In other words, not only was arsenic used to kill rats, (a fact widely known to the populace) doctors prescribed it to their patients to treat rheumatism and syphilis, strengthen one’s lungs, and even told women it would help their complexion.

Laird’s Bloom Of Youth and Dr. MacKenzie’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers were just two of the brands women consumed as a beauty aid. Arsenic made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Among the side effects of these wafers (pills) were blindness and death.

Mercury, known as calomel (pictured below), was used for any type of inflammatory disease, i.e., cholera and typhoid. At the same time, it was used to treat gastrological problems and—if taken too liberally—would cause mercury poisoning. Side effects included neurological problems such as trembling, loss of memory, and disintegration of one’s bones, teeth, and gums.

But perhaps the most common remedies used in the American West were Alcohol and Laudanum, both of which were dispensed and consumed in great number, and were highly addictive.

It should come as no surprise—given the poor quality or lack of drinking water and the abundance of watering holes known as saloons—that alcoholism was a problem in the Old West, particularly with men. It was common practice for cowboys, miners, gamblers, ranchers, railroad workers, and just about any man that worked hard in those days, to visit the local saloon and quench their thirst with whiskey, or some other form of alcohol.
The fact that many men drank themselves into a stupor was of no consequence. After all, whiskey was not only considered the beverage of choice, but viewed as a cure for just about anything. And I mean anything! From heart palpitations, dropsy, epilepsy and kidney disease to chills, stomach ailments, and even rabies. Physicians prescribed whiskey to patients with consumption. Forts dispensed three grains of quinine in an ounce of whiskey on a daily basis to soldiers as a preventive against malaria. The use of whiskey as a painkiller, antiseptic and disinfectant has also been documented—especially on the battlefield. Noting all the miraculous benefits of whiskey, as heralded in the 19th century, it doesn’t surprise me that by mixing whiskey with castor oil, people used it as a shampoo.

Although heavy drinking—even to the point of drunkenness—by men was acceptable at the time, a woman’s reputation would be destroyed if she were seen inebriated, let alone drinking in public. This is not to say that women did not drink alcohol. They might take a small shot of whiskey to relieve pain, but more often than not they were prescribed medicines that contained a high content of alcohol. One such drinkable medication was laudanum, which basically was opium and alcohol.

Also called ‘tincture of opium’, laudanum was used primarily as a sedative and painkiller, often prescribed for headaches, toothaches, and aches and pains. Its extensive use among women can be attributed to the fact it was the medicine of choice for female problems—which also explains why so many women became addicted to it. Girls as young as fourteen were prescribed laudanum. Even infants were spoon fed laudanum. Physicians cited its benefits as not only helping to calm nerves and quiet the disposition, it was prescribed as an aid for childbirth, menstruation and menopause. If one was not careful, taken in large doses, it caused unconsciousness. Many women, particularly prostitutes, used laudanum to commit suicide.

Because of its addictive properties, laudanum use was extremely dangerous. A person could build up a resistance and, therefore, need more amounts. The same can be said with regard to alcohol use, particulary in the 19th century. Forgetting the medicinal effects that were falsely attributed to alcohol, saloon keepers encouraged their patrons to drink and gamble. The two went hand-in-hand. The more someone drank, the more they gambled. Even if a man drank a moderate amount, their judgment could be affected and their behavior might become argumentative and excitable. One can well imagine the number of gunfights that were alcohol induced. As I mentioned in a previous post about Luke Short and his famous gunfight with Timothy Courtright, Courtright had been drinking when he challenged Short. And since alcohol affects the nervous system as a depressant, if one drinks too much they could become incoherent and be rendered unconscious.

Because drinking was so prevalent, alcohol-related problems increased...and not just at saloons. Soldiers at forts often developed problems with drinking, particularly during the Indian Wars. It became so serious an issue, in fact, that an officer found drunk on duty was subject to court-martial or a reduction in rank; enlisted men were fined and/or punished.

It is interesting to note that as much as we might be fascinated about the American West and the struggles they faced to survive, we often overlook the subversive dangers they faced--often doing something they believed would not harm them but help them live longer lives.

Ultimately, I cannot help but be grateful for the time I live in, and for the advancements in medical care we all enjoy. ~ AKB


  1. Ashley--it's a wonder that anyone survivied during the past centuries. It's true the life span was short. It's interesting that many romance novels, say Regency or even Western Historical, may have the heroine near thirty and not married. At that age, in that time, Thirty was middle-aged, past having babies or being pretty. Men's life span was about 45--yet, we write about heroes who also are thirty.
    Now, reading your post, I think it's clear how many of them died!
    Thanks for the information--and photos. Good job. Celia

  2. Fascinating and very informative post. It's always good to be reminded of Old West realities.

    However, I can't help but think, nothing much has changed except in the method of delivery. At least, a hundred thousand people die each year in the US from properly prescribed prescription drugs, over three hundred thousand from hospital mistakes. Given the numbers of people on Prozac, and similar drugs... who have committed suicide, killed others in a drug-induced stupor, I have to wonder how far we've actually come.

    I can say this because I can't use any drug, prescription, over the counter, or illegal... because my body won't tolerate them, and I go into Anaphylactic shock. So, how do I stay alive? [it's been thirty years now]. I've learned how to use the natural stuff, yes, even when I start to go into Anaphylactic shock, or would be given antibiotics... which are killing people, too.

    Given this, how impressed can I be with so-called modern medicine? Not that I could survive back then. It's highly doubtful that I would.

  3. Thank you, Celia. We all want our heroes to live forever, but, yes, the mortality rate for people over 40 was high. It was a worldwide statistic though, especially among the working class or impoverished. Life was hard, illness spread quickly, unsanitary factors and the elements could be brutal, and a slight cold could become pneumonia in a heartbeat without antibiotics. I am reminded of the talented Bronte sisters who all died fairly young...Charlotte at 38 in childbirth, Emily at 30, and Anne at 29. Illness plagued their family due to contaminated water than ran off of the graveyard next to the church where their father was the reverend. They had 2 older sisters who died as children, and a brother who died at 31. Ironically, their father lived to 84.

  4. Thank you, Savanna. I agree that the side effects from modern medicine can sound far worse that the illness, and natural alternatives would be my first choice. But great strides have been taken in medicine as well. Though I am deathly allergic to penicillin, there is no denying that millions of lives have been saved because of it.

  5. Ashley, another great post. It's no wonder the average life span was so short, is it? Not only from the diseases, but the treatments for them. I know paregoric, similar to laudanum, was sold in Texas long after it was illegal in California. My dad said a relative with a collicky baby asked my dad to mail her some paregoric for her child. Don't know if he did or not. Although I love reading and writing about the old West, I'm glad I live now instead of then!

  6. Hi Carolyn, and thanks for commenting. It is frightening to think how these medicines affected infants and children. I also shudder to think what was in the stuff sold at those medicine shows to people desperate for relief, and trusting these swindlers.


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