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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
Today, it is difficult to evaluate such treatments. If poultices were applied hot, as frequently happened, they may have been of some benefit. Or if they contained a blistering agent, such as Spanish fly (cantharides) or oil of mustard, they would have been effective as counterirritants. It is safe to say that poultices generally did no harm when applied to skin that was still intact.
Just six weeks before the end of the trip, near the mouth of the Little Missouri, Lewis was felled by a bullet which struck him, according to Sergeant John Ordway, “in his back side.” As Lewis described it:
… opposite to the birnt hills there happened to be a herd of Elk … I determined to land and kill some of them accordingly we put too and I went out with [Private Peter] Cruzatte only, we fired on the Elk. I killed one and he wounded another, we reloaded our guns and took different routs through the thick willows in pursuit of the Elk; I was in the act of firing on the Elk a second time when a ball struck my left thye about an inch below my hip joint, missing the bone it passed through the left thye and cut the thickness of the bullet across the hinder part of the right thye; the stroke was very severe; I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me in mistake for an Elk as I was dressed in brown leather and he cannot see very well; under this impression I called out to him damn you, you have shot me, and looked towards the place from whence the ball had come, seeing nothing I called Cruzatte several times as loud as I could …
Receiving no answer, Lewis rushed to the conclusion that he had been shot by Indians. Therefore, though in great pain, he quickly made his way back to the boat, where he ordered the men there to follow him and “give them battle and relieve Cruzatte.” But Lewis’ wound soon became so painful and his thigh so stiff that he could go no farther. The rest of the party went ahead and about twenty minutes later returned, bringing Cruzatte with them. They had encountered no Indians. Cruzatte was blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other; he had shot Lewis unintentionally and, because of embarrassment, had kept quiet when Lewis called to him.
Sergeant Gass helped Lewis introduce “tents of patent lint into the ball holes” and, later that evening, they applied a poultice of Peruvian bark. It was a nasty wound. When Clark first dressed it, Lewis fainted dead away.
In those days a tent consisted of a roll of lint, or linen, unsterilized of course. It was supposed to expedite drainage and, by keeping the surface of the wound open, to insure the formation of new tissue from the inside out. It a tent was not used, wounds tended to heal at the surface, thus precluding drainage. In similar situations, surgeons today sometimes employ rubber tubes of various kinds, called drains, some of which are open, others filled with gauze.
On August 22, eleven days after Lewis had been shot, Clark reported, “I am happy to have it in my power to Say that my worthy friend Capt. Lewis is recovering fast, he walked a little to day for the first time. I have discontinued the tent in the hole the ball came out.” Four days later he removed the tent from the other wound, and by September 9, his worthy friend could “walk and even run nearly as well as ever he could.” And just in time. Two weeks later Lewis was in St. Louis enjoying a hero’s welcome. For that, a man needed two good legs under him.
Lewis and Clark, though not medically trained, were men of obvious talent and vast common sense in whom the spirit of inquiry ran high. Of the two leaders, Lewis was better educated and more knowledgeable, with the logical and deductive mind of a good scientist. He was a man of many moods and sought solitude rather than companionship. Clark, on the other hand, was genial and gregarious, the friend of prince and pauper alike. It was to him the men turned with their problems. If, subsequently, either of the captains had studied medicine, it is reasonable to believe that he would have distinguished himself. Lewis, from what we know of him, would have come nearer being the astute, discerning diagnostician. Clark, certainly, would have had much the better bedside manner.
The one inconvertible fact about the medical practice of Lewis and Clark is that in twenty-eight months of traveling some 8,000 miles in a land of thirsty sands, rampaging rivers, and unpredictable savages, they lost only one man, poor Sergeant Floyd, and the best medical men in the country—even, probably, Dr. Rush—could not have saved him. Thomas Jefferson, it would seem, made no mistake in entrusting the health and welfare, as well as the military command, of the party to these two resourceful, clear-headed frontiersmen. In fact, considering the primitive state of medicine in the world at that time, who can conscientiously insist that the expedition would have fared better in the hands of a qualified doctor than in those of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark?