Rarely do I gravitate towards nonfiction, but I saw “Medicine in the Old West” at the library and was instantly hooked. It’s fascinating, and has given me a whole new appreciation for modern medicine.
Even when things are so grim in the US right now, acknowledging our growth can help. And if there’s one area where we’ve done a lot right, it’s advancements in healthcare. If you’re the type to focus on what you’re thankful for each day (good for you), I have the ultimate new gratitude list for you.
*Important sidenote, I find that the author, Jeremy Agnew, uses inflammatory wording toward Native Americans throughout the book. Agnew refers to Native American healing methods as “cures” (with the quotes, sarcastically), even though they worked. He uses words like “barbaric,” “rough,” “hostile,” and “crude,” but never uses that phrasing for white men who literally thought the cure for an upset stomach was pouring laxatives and mercury down someone’s throat. The book is a page-turner, but before I go on, I don’t think that detail should be overlooked.
Before we could see and recognize bacteria, we thought that most illnesses were airborne and caused by bad smells. We also thought that the body had bad stuff internally (not totally wrong) called humours—these were yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm—and when you were sick, you had too much of one of these inside you.
Imagine having dysentery and instead of being given electrolytes and rest, you’re given a laxative and the doc bleeds you out. This was the common treatment until almost the turn of the century! Thank you, early inventors and scientists for looking at things at a microscopic level.
People took so many laxatives in the 19th century because, for lack of better words, they were backed the fk up. Salted, rotten pork and maggoty bread were dietary staples. Unless they had room for a garden or knew about the need for produce, people basically felt sick all the time.
Price and availability were huge factors for eating fresh fruit and veggies. As one example, the price of an apple in the during the Gold Rush could be as high as $2 (in the 1800s!!), for one apple. The fruit-obsessed human that I am couldn’t be more grateful that a balanced diet became a priority on a societal level—though this is a good reminder that for many people, fresh produce is still not affordable.
Openness Toward Sexuality
Loooooordt. Well to start, female orgasms were called “voluptuous spasms” and were seen as a bad thing (such as causing infertility and “unnatural passions for pepper, mustard, and cloves”). Women could even be institutionalized if they seemed to enjoy sex too much.
Being openly gay was flat-out unacceptable in white America. Wanting to have sex was seen as an amoral desire. Lots of men turned to bordellos and lots of women turned to laudanum and opium because they were like “this shit fkkn sucks.” Oh, and as a byproduct of sexual repression and not being open about sexuality, STI rates were rampant—38 percent of soldiers in the Civil War had syphilis, and even more had gonorrhea. We’ve still got a long way to go, but at least today, people’s healthy sexual needs and desires can be expressed in ways that were previously forbidden.
Smallpox, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio—these were major killers to children and they decimated families. One report showed that a family of twelve lost eleven of their children in a week to diphtheria.
I don’t even want to give attention to the vaccination “debate” because it’s ridiculous, but I will say this: the reason people think their kids are fine without vaccines is because every other generation was willingly getting vaccinated. It’s like when I sometimes stop taking my probiotic because I feel better, forgetting that the reason I feel better is because I’m consistently taking a probiotic. I say this because I’d guess that if an anti-vaxxer lost two children to smallpox back then, they would want a cure for the rest of their family and would be first in line for a vaccination. Vaccines were truly seen as a saving grace for families in the early 20th century, because they are.
How Most People Don’t Chew Tobacco Nowadays
You’re a 19th century guy out on the town, so naturally you go to the saloon and start practicing your chewing tobacco aim with the spittoons under the bar. Naturally you and your buddies have missed a ton and there’s spit alllll over the floor. This is all great (no it’s not, it’s gross), and the saloon owner even pours sawdust over the floor to cover your tracks and let guests crash there.
This was a regular scenario in the 19th century, and one that led to countless diseases being spread. People got suuuuuper sick and then passed it onto the next person they interacted with. Literally not allowing people to spit on the floor and the decline in chewing tobacco’s popularity have made a huge difference in health.
I’ll cover the remaining five things in my next post, and will have finished the book by then. Stay tuned for Part II! In the meantime, what medical advancement are you grateful for?
Photo Credit: Bill Oxford, Joshua Stitt, and Dan Meyer via Unsplash