- Historic Sites
“i Gave Him Barks And Saltpeter •”
Medicine was primitive and their knowledge of it limited, but in their hazardous journey to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark lost only one patient
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
Lewis and Clark’s original budget was $2,500. Of this total, $90.69 went for medicines. According to one calculation, their purchases included 1,300 doses of physic, 1,100 of emetic, 3,500 of diaphoretic (sweat-inducer), and fifteen pounds of febrifuge (fever-reducer), not to mention si/able amounts of drugs for blistering, salivation, and increased kidney output. Thus equipped with everything from camphor and calomel to tourniquets and clyster syringes, the medical team of Lewis and Clark seemed ready for almost any contingency.
Their historic journey to the Pacific began at the frontier town of St. Charles, Missouri, on May 21, 1804. The expedition, consisting of some forty men, travelled in three vessels, a fifty-five-foot keelboat and two smaller craft called pirogues. Lewis and Clark would not see St. Charles again until September 21, 1806, two years and four months later.
They were a month and a hall out of St. Charles before they encountered their first potentially serious medical problem. On Wednesday, July 4, 1804, Clark wrote: “ussered in the day by a discharge of one shot from our Bow piece … passed the Mouth of a Bayeau … Came to on the L.S. [larboard side] to refresh our selves & Jos. Fields got bit by a Snake.”
This incident occurred north of present-day Atchison, Kansas, near the mouth of a small stream which Lewis and Clark, in honor of the day, called Independence Creek, the name it still bears. The snake that bit Joseph Fields was apparently innocuous. But since the party was now on unfamiliar terrain where snakes might belie their appearance, Lewis took no chances when he treated Fields, and applied a poultice of bark and gunpowder.
The frontiersman of that day employed many rem edies for snake bite, their very multiplicity affording the best evidence possible that none was entirely ef lective. Mark Twain was conversant with one of the most common. Readers of Huckleberry Finn will recall how Nigger Jim, after being struck by a rattler, grabbed the whiskey jug and “begun to pour it down.” This was one remedy the victims of snake bite found inviting, and great faith was placed in its ability to neutralize snake venom. Doctors as well as laymen re garded it as a sure-fire antidote. This belief was not only false but dangerous: by speeding the flow of blood, alcohol only hastens distribution and absorption of the venom.
The great majority of the remedies employed for snake bite were in the form of poultices. Favorite materials included garlic, onions, radishes, freshly chewed tobacco, and’ a wide range of other plants. Poultices of bark and gunpowder, such as Lewis applied, also were used. A poultice today is something of an anachronism, like the powder horn and the pot-bellied stove. As a general rule it consisted of a warm mass of a glutinous or oleaginous material—bread, lard, corn meal, bran, macerated plant material—which, combined with substances of reputed therapeutic value, was spread on a small piece of cloth and applied to the afflicted part. Doctors of the day thought that poultices would not only draw out the poison or other cause of inflammation but also act as a painkiller, antiseptic, and counterirritant. In those days, panaceas were almost as common as infirmities.
Physicians, however, did not regularly use gunpowder as a therapeutic agent. Explorers, Indian fighters, and frontiersmen regarded it more highly, especially for snake bite. They were known on occasion to slash the bite, pour gunpowder on it, and then set fire to the powder. Many of them used gunpowder as a medicine because they had nothing else available. Some wounds thus treated undoubtedly healed, and, using post hoc reasoning, the victims unhesitatingly gave credit to the powder instead of to Mother Nature.
The bark employed by Lewis in treating Joseph Fields could have been that of the slippery elm ( Ulmus fulva ), the inner part of which is mucilaginous and was much used in poultices during the last century. But Lewis and Clark had with them fifteen pounds of pulverized Peruvian bark (cinchona), and when anyone used the word “bark” in those days, it almost always meant cinchona.
Cinchona, which contains quinine, was used for a wide assortment of diseases and afflictions, ranging from measles, dysentery, and dropsy to carbuncles and “ill-conditioned ulcers.” One-third of Lewis and Clark’s medical outlay had gone into pulverized Peruvian bark, an indication of their high regard for it.
The seventh of July, 1804, along that part of the wide Missouri just below the mouth of the Platte must have been a day of pitiless, penetrating heat. Clark wrote: “one man verry sick, Struck with the Sun, Capt. Lewis bled him & gave Niter which has revived him much.”
The niter employed here in treating sunstroke was potassium nitrate, better known as saltpeter. Even today its usefulness as a diuretic and diaphoretic—for increasing urine discharge and inducing sweats—is recognized, though other drugs are more commonly employed for those purposes. Lewis and Clark had two pounds of saltpeter with them and used it in treating a variety of unrelated disorders.