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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
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.”
Two days later the expedition left Fort Clatsop and began the long journey back home. Bratton, unable to walk, made the trip to Camp Chopunnish on the Clearwater by boat and by horse. When they arrived, two months later, he was still “verry unwell.” His cure came suddenly, even dramatically. In Lewis’ words:
[Private] John Shields observed that he had seen men in a similar situation restored by violent sweats. Bratton requested that he might be sweated in the manner proposed by Shields to which we consented. Shields sunk a circular hole of 3 feet diamiter and four feet deep in the earth, he kindled a large fire in the hole and heated well, after which the fire was taken out [and] a seat placed in the center of the hole for the patient with a board at bottom for his feet to rest on; some hoops of willow poles were bent in an arch crossing each other over the hole, on these several blankets were thrown forming a secure and thick orning [awning] of about 3 feet high, the patient being striped naked was seated under this orning in the hole and … by that means creats as much steam or vapor as he could possibly bear, in this situation he was kept about 20 minutes after which he was taken out and suddenly plunged in cold water twise and was then immediately returned to the sweat hole where he was continued three quarters of an hour longer then taken out covered up in several blankets and suffered to cool gradually, during the time of his being in the sweat hole, he drank copious draughts of a strong tea of horse mint.
This treatment of alternating heat and cold was effective; it is used successfully in similar cases today. The very next day Bratton was walking about, almost entirely free of pain, and within two weeks he had, Lewis wrote, “so far recovered that we cannot well consider him an invalid any longer, he has had a tedious illness which he boar with much fortitude and firmness.”
The obscure lumbar ailment which Bratton endured for four long months cannot be definitely diagnosed at this late date. Medical men suggest sciatica or infectious arthritis or an inflamed sacroiliac joint. Bratton’s cure was apparently permanent. He fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe and, later, in the War of 1812. In 1819 he married and in time became the father of eight sons and two daughters.
From beginning to end, the members of the expedition suffered from skin infections—boils, tumors, abscesses, and whitlows, these last being inflammations at the ends of the fingers and toes. Such infections could not be avoided. Cuts and skin abrasions which would allow the entrance of germs occurred daily, especially among the boatmen. Theirs was hardly child’s play. In places they toiled waist-deep in water for hours on end, scrambling over sharp-edged rocks which cut moccasins to shreds. At one time Lewis wrote: “Many of them have their feet so mangled and bruised with the stones … that they can scarcely walk or stand; at least it is with great pain that they do either.”
Lewis and Clark, of course, knew nothing of the doctrine of sepsis. Pathogens, such as bacteria, protozoa, and viruses, had yet to be recognized for what they are: almost three-quarters of a century would elapse before the world would know of Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease. Physicians of this preantiseptic era treated skin infections with poultices and ointments, and Lewis and Clark followed standard practice. For instance, when Private John Potts’ cut leg became inflamed and painful, Clark applied first a poultice of the root of the “Cowes” ( Cogswellia cous ), an herb of the Northwest, and later, another of “the pounded root & leaves of wild ginger [ Asarum caudatum ] from which he found great relief.” Another time, when an Indian woman showed up with an abscess on the small of her back, Clark opened it and applied basilicon ointment. This was a salve for external application consisting ordinarily of such ingredients as resin, yellow wax, and lard.