By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Just the other day I saw a TV advertisement about medication for insomnia. Just one of the possible side effects among a frightening litany of side effects was the "inability to move when sleeping or upon waking". In other words, temporary paralysis.
On the up side, the patient gets a good night's sleep. Egads!
Still, at least we're informed beforehand. Right? After all, nowadays, when one picks up a prescription from their local pharmacy, a printout of information about the medication, its use, and possible complications are provided to the patient.
As a writer of historical fiction, everything about a person's life should be researched -- just like the setting, climate, clothing, government, etc. And it would be remiss to think that characters were not concerned with health or injuries.
What if someone was in constant pain because of a back injury sustained while changing a wagon wheel? Or a broken arm or leg that was not set properly? I am often reminded of the almost debilitating pain Thomas Jefferson had after breaking a wrist while ambassador to France. The break never healed properly and for a man who did a lot of writing (with a quill pen, no less) and loved to play the violin, one can only imagine how painful and aggravating the wrist remained.
But back to the Old West. What medication and/or prescribed treatments were available to them? Consequently, the more research I do, the more mind-boggling it is to think about the often fatal effects that resulted from prescribed care.
In the 19th century, especially in the American West, settlers were isolated. Far from civilization, they were often forced to rely upon themselves in times of injury and illness. Patent medicines (what we consider over-the-counter medicines) were not readily available. Some people had knowledge about herbs and plants that could be used for medicinal purposes, but not always.
Traveling medicine shows brought with them methods of treatment from back East that were often inaccurate and deadly poisonous. Although most legitimate frontier doctors spoke against medicine shows peddling miracle cures, physicians also prescribed treatment that was toxic and addictive.
For example, it was not uncommon for Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic — all very poisonous — to be dispensed as medicine.
Guess not, because doctors routinely prescribed Arsenic to treat rheumatism, 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 brands women consumed as a beauty aid.
In truth, Arsenic did seem to work from an appearance standpoint. Arsenic made the skin pale by destroying red blood cells. Unfortunately, the side effects from using products such as these wafers (pills) was blindness and death.
Taken too liberally, one experienced Mercury Poisoning. Side effects for Mercury Poisoning include neurological problems such as trembling, loss of memory, and disintegration of one’s bones, teeth, and gums.
Perhaps the most common remedies used in the American West were Alcohol and Laudanum, both of which were dispensed and consumed in great abundance. They were also highly addictive.
Understandably, it should come as no surprise, given the poor quality (or lack) of drinking water and the abundance of watering holes (aka 'saloons'), that alcoholism was a big problem in the Old West, particularly among men. Cowboys, miners, gamblers, ranchers, railroad workers, and just about any man that worked hard in those days would visit the local saloon and quench their thirst with whiskey, or some other form of Alcohol.
Physicians also 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 preventative against malaria. The use of whiskey as a painkiller, antiseptic and disinfectant has also been documented—-especially on the battlefield.
Considering the believed miraculous benefits of whiskey, as heralded during the 19th century, it shouldn't be surprising that whiskey was also mixed with castor oil to make a shampoo.
Although heavy drinking by men, even to the point of drunkenness, was acceptable at the time, a woman’s reputation would be destroyed if she were to be 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, basically a mixture of Opium and Alcohol.
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 a larger dose. The same can be said with regard to Alcohol use, particularly in the 19th century.
Forgetting the medicinal effects that were falsely attributed to Alcohol, saloon keepers encouraged 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. Their behavior might become argumentative and excitable. One can well imagine the number of Alcohol induced gunfights that occurred. And since Alcohol affects the nervous system as a depressant, if one drinks too much they could become incoherent and be rendered unconscious.
It is interesting to note that as much as we might be fascinated about the American West and the struggles pioneers faced to survive, we often overlook subversive dangers they faced -- often doing something they believed would not harm but help them live longer lives.
Today, in the 21st century, as more and more complications are noted from prescription medicines -- and class action lawsuits are filed, there is a greater awakening among people and a keen desire to research natural alternatives. As you might have guessed, I am one of those individuals who prefers to research anything prescribed to me or my family. Although there are great advancements in science, medical care, and pharmaceutical products that can greatly relieve health problems, it is fair to say that we must all remain diligent with regard to possible negative consequences.
Thank you for stopping by today. I hope you found this post interesting and informative. ~ AKB