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“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
Clark —September 25: when I arrived at Camp found Capt. Lewis verry Sick, Several men also verry Sick, I gave Some Salts and Tarter emetic .
Clark —September 26: Capt. Lewis Still verry unwell. Several men taken Sick on the way down, I administered Salts Pils Galip [jalap] Tarter emetic &c. I feel unwell this evening.
It is quite apparent that the men were in bad shape. With Lewis sick it was incumbent on Clark, himself “unwell,” to take charge. He was an uncertain and much puzzled “doctor,” but that did not deter him from prescribing Rush’s pills “to see what effect that would have,” nor, as the cases multiplied, from taking seriously Hippocrates’ maxim: “Desperate diseases require desperate remedies.”
The cause of the general “lax” among the men is conjectural. The camass roots may have had a purgative effect on one unaccustomed to them, as Lewis and Clark believed. The next spring, as they ascended the Columbia, they tried to avoid eating them. On the other hand, the trouble may have been due simply to a drastic change in diet.
Lewis and Clark could scarcely credit the high incidence of eye troubles among the Indians of the Columbia River basin. Wrote Clark: The loss of sight I have observed to be more common among all the nations inhabiting this river than among any people I ever observed, they have almost invariably sore eyes at all stages of life, the loss of an eye is very common among them; blindness in persons of middle age is by no means uncommon, and it is almost invariably a comcammitant of old age. I know not to what cause to attribute this prevalent deficientcy of the eye except it be their exposure to the reflection of the sun off the water to which they are constantly exposed in the occupation of fishing.
When the Indians came to Lewis and Clark to have their eyes treated, as they did increasingly in the succeeding months, Lewis had his own special eyewash: “a solution of white vitriol [zinc sulphate] and the sugar of lead [lead acetate] in the proportion of 2 grs. of the former and one of the latter to each ounce of water.” Dropped into the eyes, it brought at least temporary relief.
The prevalence of sore eyes among the natives was not caused by anything as innocent as reflection of the sun from water. It was probably due to trachoma or venereal disease. Both appear to have been common in all stages of development among the Columbia Valley Indians, and in all age groups. Trachoma, a highly contagious form of conjunctivitis characterized by granulations on the conjunctival surfaces, may lead to partial or complete blindness. So may gonorrheal conjunctivitis (ophthalmia neonatorum), which babies can inherit from their mothers at birth.
The journals do not mention Private William Bratton as performing any unusual act of bravery, or being party to any of the more breath-taking moments of the expedition except for once being chased for a mile and a half by a grizzly bear. He was a good soldier and a skilled gunsmith; we would know little else about him if he had not become the only member of the party who was seriously ill for an extended period.
As soon as the expedition reached the Pacific, in mid-November, 1805, Bratton was one of five men detailed to evaporate sea water to obtain salt, the supply of that commodity having been exhausted. Some time later, Lewis and Clark received word that Bratton was “verry unwell,” and five days later he showed up “much reduced” at Fort Clatsop, their newly constructed winter quarters at the mouth of the Columbia. The next day, February 16, Clark wrote, “Bratten is verry weak and complains of a pain in the lower part of the back when he moves which I suppose proceeds from debility. I gave him barks and saltpeter.”
As time went on, however, Bratton’s condition became worse. “He complains,” wrote Lewis, “of a violent pain in the small of his back and is unable in consequence to set up we gave him one of our flanel shirts, applyed a bandage of flannel to the part and bathed and rubed it well with some vollatile linniment which I prepared with sperits of wine, camphor, castile soap and a little laudinum.”
As the time for the return journey drew near, Bratton still remained an invalid. On March 21 Lewis wrote: “Bratton is now so much reduced that I am somewhat uneasy with rispect to his recovery; the pain of which he complains most seems to be seated in the small of his back and remains obstinate. I believe that it is the rheumatism.”