Tuesday, July 12, 2011


My book Doctor in Petticoats is about a modern woman doctor, or as modern as she could be in the late 1880’s. I had her attend a college for women doctors in Chicago to give her the education and respectability I needed for the book.

Reading Bleed, Blister, and Purge; A History of Medicine on the American Frontier by Volney Steele, M.D. I discovered that in the 1870’s and into the early 1880’s most doctors had little to no formal learning. Harvard Medical School in 1870 didn’t even give written examinations because a good number of the students couldn’t write. Medical schools popped up that did very little to teach the students what they really needed to know to be doctors. And in some cases all they had to do was send in $5 or $10 depending on the grade of paper and receive a certificate that proclaimed them a doctor. In some cases people were better off going to a local woman who had herbal cures than going to someone with a certificate nailed on the wall.

Many of the so-called doctors would come up with gimmicks that they proclaimed healed. These were the forerunners of the term “quack” which is from quacksalver; a person who claims special merit of his medications and salves.

During the 1870’s and 1880’s the newspapers cried out about the poor medical treatment of the people in the west and mid-west until finally in 1889 when Montana received statehood, the Medical Practices Act was passed. A Board of Medical Examiners was created. This was the start of controlling the doctors practicing medicine.

Excerpt from Doctor in Petticoats. The heroine is casting the hero’s leg.

“Clay, it’s Dr. Tarkiel, Rachel. You fell and broke your leg. I have it set, but we still need to stabilize it.” She brushed the wisp of wet chestnut bangs off his forehead.

“It hurts,” he whispered.

The sound of his voice squeezed her chest. His pain had become her pain. She placed a palm on his cheek. “I know. If you’re awake enough to swallow, I can give you some medicine to help with the pain.”

“Yes,” he hissed between his lips. Furrows formed on his brow and his color paled.

“Keep holding his leg,” she said to Mr. Smith and hurried to her medicine cabinet. She tapped powdered laudanum into a glass and added water. Stirring the tonic, she returned to the table.

“Drink this. It will ease the pain.” Rachel slid a hand under Clay’s head, raising him enough to sip the liquid.

His nose wrinkled, and he shook his head at the glass. “That’s awful.”

“But it will take away your pain. Try again.” She held the glass in front of his mouth again. His reluctance to drink the foul taste was a good sign.

He drank the remainder.

Rachel settled his head on the table and filled a basin with water. She unrolled an adhesive bandage and placed it in the basin. Picking up a square bandage, she sprinkled laudanum in the middle and placed it over the wound. Mr. Smith held Clay’s leg off the table while she wrapped a clean bandage from his ankle to below his knee. She placed two long flat strips of wood on either side of the leg and wrapped the whole thing with the soaked adhesive bandage. She still marveled at the genius who’d thought to press the white plaster of Paris powder into bandages to make casting material for broken bones.

She rubbed each layer, smearing the plaster together and sealing the layers. The cast was an inch thick when she smiled at Mr. Smith. “That should keep him from doing harm while the bone heals.”

Mr. Smith shook his head. “He’s a hard man ta keep still, Miss.”



  1. Wow I had no idea it was so easy to become a doctor then! That's incredible.

    Great excerpt from a great story!!

  2. Thanks,Nicole! Yeah,I was like, really? When I read the info.

  3. Paty

    Wow it was really easy to become a doctor now look what it takes. Great post....


  4. I love that book! Dr. Steele did a lot of research for it. I find it hard to write historically medical-wise when you know what they are doing is so stupid. Another great book you might look for is "The Family Nurse" by Lydia Child. It was first published in the 1830's and is a great explanation of the common medical practices of the time.

  5. It's a wonder any of them survived, isn't it? Great blog. I read The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritson a few years back, and she went from present time to Boston in the 1800s and they wondered why so many women died in the laying in hospital. They made women lay in bed for 10 days after giving birth. The doc would go from one to the next to the next checking their private parts, merely wiping his hand on a dirty rag between each one. Woman soon caught on that the last place you wanted to be was in hospital!

  6. I found your remark about Harvard school not giving written exams so shocking, I posted about it on fb with a link to your blog. Great info. Wow, boggles the mind how our ancestors survived.

  7. Hi Paty, got me interested when you said, Quacks! LOL

    Yep doctors weren't what they were cracked up to be back then, that's partly why so many people died too.

    But the fact that they wanted to help was a good thing. And someone rather than no one was a welcome thing too.

    Women had a really hard time, going to school and being ridiculed by male doctors and teachers as they came into being. I feel sorry for them.

    Thank God they had a few mid-wives along the way too.

    Great article.
    Love and blessings

  8. Melinda, Yes it was. No wonder they did some of the awful things they did in the name of medicine.

    Thanks Anna Kathryn! I'll have to find that book.

    Lynne, It was remarkable that the Native Americans knew more about cleanliness and healing than the Whites.

    Vonnie, I agree. How the population multiplied is a mystery. Thanks!

    Rita,It was the ones who really wanted to help that made the difference. There were many who just wanted to hang up a shingle and pretend they were God who caused the most problems. Or concocted some type of elixir that would cure all. And made money.

  9. It is amazing how medicine even evolved with some of the crazy techniques they used - like bleeding someone. I also have that book and have found it quite interesting. My great, great grandfather was a doctor who came west in 1849. I wonder what kind of education he had...

  10. Can't wait to read Doctor in Petticoats. I'm currently reading (and loving) Outlaw in Petticoats.

  11. Paty--I've always been fascinated by medical practices in our pioneer days. Even as a little girl decades ago, my grandparents had home remedies for many things. A wasp stung my arm when I was little, and my granddad took me to the porch and we sat down on the steps. He used chewing tobacco, the kind that comes in a pressed square and the user slices off a bit. Anyway, he spit some of the juice into his hand and also took a pinch of the wet tobacco and mixed it together. Then he slapped it on my arm and held it there. I guess it took the sting away.
    All sort of remedies such as that. Some day, I'm going to make a list of things I remember--I'll have to ask my sisters--my older one will know more. Very interesting! Celia

  12. Nice cover! Love them cowboys. Sounds like a great read.

  13. Love the bit of history. It's interesting that the west didn't have educated doctors. There were educated doctors in Europe in the 1700's and at least some of them must of immigrated to the Americas. In fact, one of my favorite stories is a woman who masqueraded as a male doctor for 46 years. See http://tinyurl.com/62geubq One of my favorite fictional western doctors is still Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. :)

  14. Paisley, That would be interesting to know what your grandfather's education was.

    Thanks Debra!

    Celia, Yes, there are many home remedies that were actually better than some of the concoctions the "quacks" came up with to make money.

    Thanks Terri!

    Maggie, there were legitimate doctors, but there were more who weren't.

  15. Good heavens, I didn't know it was so easy to become a doctor. No wonder there were so many quacks around and so many of the patients died. Scary stuff.



  16. Hi Margaret, Yes, it surprised me when I read it.

  17. Paty, I love learning new things about the Old West. After you and AK, I'll definitely have to get Steels's book. Thanks!

    Doctor in Petticoats is one of the first books I bought when I got my Kindle a few weeks ago, and I'm anxious to read it. :)


  18. Very interesting, Paty. Yes, many women (and men) died from infections they received from the doctor. When I did my family history, I learned several women in my family almost died from hemhorraging after childbirth. I love reading about the 19th century, but thank goodness I live now instead of then!

  19. Jacquie, The research I do for books is more fun for me than writing. Let me know if you enjoy Doctor in Petticoats.

    I agree, Caroline. It's fun learning how they lived but it's better living now.

  20. I never thought about the term "quack" and where it came from. Quacksalver makes sense, given how people were duped into believing "quacks" promoting the healing effects of salves and potions.
    Interesting information!


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