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Doctors Of The Frontier
Underschooled and ill-equipped, the men who attended the pioneers practiced a rugged brand of medicine—but they made some major advances all the same
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Dr. Richmond was an itinerant preacher who had taken up medicine after listening to lectures at a medical school where he worked temporarily as a janitor. He had never seen a Caesarean performed, or even heard it described by another physician; he had only a rudimentary knowledge of how to proceed, based on reading ancient accounts in Greek and Latin. For many hours he sat by the patient’s bed, working with her, waiting, then working again, hoping that birth would occur in the natural way. He wanted to call in a more experienced physician, but a storm-swollen river cut him off from help. Finally, he had to act. His report conveys the drama of men in like circumstances fighting against odds for the lives of their patients: Finding that whatever was done must be done soon, and feeling a deep and solemn sense of my responsibility, with only a case of common pocket instruments, about one o’clock at night I commenced the Caesarean Section. … The house … was made of logs that were green, and put together not more than a week before. The crevices were not chinked, there was no chimney, nor chamber floor. The night was stormy and windy, insomuch, that the assistants had to hold blankets to keep the candles from being blown out. … The patient never complained of pain during the whole course of the cure.
The last line of Dr. Richmond’s account strikes a note encountered often in the chronicles of pioneer medicine. Typical, too, was the quite off-hand way in which the tribute was paid. Courage was necessary, and so it was taken for granted. It was a long time before anesthesia came to relieve the need for sheer endurance in the face of pain.
In the gold camps of the Far West medicine was practiced on much the same level as on the shifting frontiers inland. But the patients were different, and so were the doctors. These were no homesteaders come to raise crops and families, but adventurers, gamblers, fugitives, wanderers of every description. They suffered from gold fever, and while that in itself was not a recognized medical condition, it produced violent side effects which quite often came to a physician’s attention.
The gold seekers piled into overcrowded ships, and died by the thousands on the trip around the Horn; quite often those who lived brought the germs of epidemics with them when they staggered ashore in California. Or they arrived sick and half-starved sometimes after similarly hasty and ill-planned stampedes across the plains. They suffered terribly from scurvy, a disease easily prevented by eating a lemon a day. But no one spent time raising fruit when gold was waiting to be plucked from the ground.
Physicians were stricken with gold fever along with everyone else. When news of the first big strike came in, all three of San Francisco’s doctors closed their offices to head for the hills. And it was prospecting, not medical opportunity, that drew many of the 1,500 doctors who arrived in the Gold Rush. Shortly, however, the doctors discovered that there was more money to be made with lancet and stethoscope than with pickaxe and crowbar. For all the tales of rich veins of metal, a miner could expect to average only $500 for a year’s hard work. Some doctors made more in a week.
The money to be made in medicine attracted hordes of quacks. In the gold field’s community of strangers, where a man’s credentials were as good as his bluff, such a development was almost impossible to check. One prominent “physician” turned out to be an escaped convict, another was a notorious horse thief. The prevalence of impostors can be seen in old California death certificates which list such causes of demise as “Effect of Jiggers” and “Evil in the Bladder.”
One impostor who came to grief was a swaggering, gaudily dressed alcoholic who called himself Dr. Hullings. He set up an office at Placerville, known earlier as Hangtown, and announced that he would fight anyone who jumped his medical claim. Into this same camp came Dr. Edward Willis, an Englishman with a European medical diploma. Hullings stalked into Dr. Willis’ tent, tore up his diploma, and spat tobacco juice in his face. Hullings, however, had misjudged his man. Dr. Willis dispatched the challenger in a duel, and settled down to medical practice undisturbed.
Generally the doctors had no need to fight over patients. There were more than enough to go around. In Rich Bar, California, for instance, twenty-nine doctors kept busy tending to the needs of one thousand brawling miners. The wife of one of these doctors passed on an account of what the life was like. “In the short space of 24 days,” she wrote, “we have had several murders, fearful accidents, bloody deaths, whippings, a hanging, an attempt at suicide and a fatal duel.” The first five years of the Gold Rush, it has been estimated, produced 4,200 murders and 1,400 suicides.
Even in this violent land, however, there was a kind of unwritten compact which made all men allies against the common enemies of disease and death. The doctor who was respected could move among toughs and cutthroats, knowing that his profession was a better protection than a gun at his hip. It was not just sentiment. These men had needed him before, and they knew they would almost certainly need him again.
Among those who enjoyed such status was Dr. William B. Eichelroth. He was a Saxon aristocrat who had fled from his native land with a price on his head after participating unsuccessfully in one of the liberal uprisings which marked Europe in the late 1840*8. In the West he became so well known and liked that miners used him as a gold courier, confident that bandits would not molest him. Dr. Eichelroth reported this dialogue with a bandit he met on the trail: