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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
Bandit: Hands up and hold ’em high!
Doctor: What the hell do you want of me?
Bandit: Oh, it’s you, Doc. Go ahead.
In Denver, Dr. F. J. Bancroft reacted coolly to another kind of threat. A cowboy brought in his badly wounded brother, dumped him on the operating table, and announced that he would shoot the doctor if the patient died. Dr. Bancroft proceeded to do the necessary thing, which in this case was amputating a limb. Later he told friends that he had not worried much. After all, he was armed, too. And if a patient were going to die, the doctor would be the first to know.
For the most part, though, the Wild West physician didn’t need or want a gun. Typical was the attitude of Dr. Charles Buck, who habitually travelled unarmed through the Rio Grande Valley of Texas when that area was a meeting ground for ruffians from both sides of the border. At one point the Texas Rangers offered to provide him with armed escort for his journeys. Dr. Buck declined emphatically. It was his view that the Rangers had many enemies, while he, so far as he knew, had no enemies at all. He had no wish to be shot by mistake or accident in some other man’s quarrel.
Eventually the West settled down. And when they came to write their memoirs, the doctors who had experienced the wild days very often found that their most vivid memories concerned not shootings and brushes with outlaws but the old, elemental dramas which are the stuff of medicine everywhere. Dr. Coe, for instance, reminisced about the midnight chase down the lonely road, but one of his most terrible experiences involved the time he arrived too late to assist at a birth. The woman’s husband had taken over, bungling the job with fatal results. Dr. Coe remembered the scene thus: On the bare simmering sand near the water hole, quailing under the hot mid-day sun, stood a tent. In front on the hot sand lay the body of an almost naked woman smeared with sand and blood from head to feet. Grouped around it in a circle were eight ragged, dirty children, from three to eighteen years old, crying and wailing in the most abject misery and grief. A tall, powerfully built man, wild-eyed, ragged and dirty, with a three-weeks’ growth of beard, the wide brim of his sombrero flopping in time with his movements, was doing the Piute War Dance around the children. He held a naked unwashed baby in his left arm and was brandishing a big six-shooter at the sky with his right hand. In a vituperative stream of blood-curdling profanity he threatened all the gods in Heaven and defied Jesus Christ to come down to earth in person and fight him in mortal combat. … It was a pathetic, ghastly and soul-sickening sight.
Along with such tragedies went many triumphs. Dr. Charles Gardiner recalled that shortly after he arrived in Colorado, a greenhorn both to medicine and to the West, he was asked to operate on a woman suffering from a huge tumor on the head. The deformity had so embarrassed her that for months she had locked herself in her home, refusing to see even her closest friends. When the nervous, uncertain young doctor was ready to perform the operation, he learned to his horror that it had become a public event. Scores of miners and cowmen gathered about. One big, confident fellow bulled his way into the operating room, opened a window, and draped his body over the sill, announcing that “I’m a-going to tell folks how things is going.”
“I should have not chosen him for a clinic reporter,” Dr. Gardiner wrote later. But since he didn’t seem to have much choice he bent to his task, finding relief in the fact that his skill increased with tension. So complete was his concentration that he barely heard the man at the window bellow out the progress reports: “He’s a-cutting into it. He’s got it roped and hog-tied. She’s a-doing fine, folks. The Doc’s giving her a drink. … It’s all over but the shouting, boys.”
The last announcement was greeted with wild cheers and a general discharge of firearms, following which the festive crowd dragged the doctor off to a nearby saloon for drinks all around. In his new-found dignity Dr. Gardiner stated his frank preference for soda water, and such was his position as hero of the hour that this eccentricity of taste was entirely overlooked.
That saloon celebration is probably as good a place as any to take leave of pioneer medicine. It is nicely symbolic of the much larger triumph that took place when the pioneer doctors and their successors could state that disease generally had been pretty well “roped and hog-tied.”
In the process, the more rugged aspects of pioneer medicine came to an end with the disappearance of America’s geographical frontiers and the advance of medicine. Changing conditions of life in a more settled land saw the slow refinement of the haphazard credentials—and sometimes practices—on the basis of which some frontiersmen called themselves physicians. Texas was the first state to establish a licensing board for physicians, in 1873. By 1895 most states had followed suit. The twentieth century has made the practice of medicine ever more sophisticated, more institutionalized, inevitably relegating a brave and colorful and often ingenious character to America’s earthier past.