Welcome back! To recap, I read this insane book called “Medicine of the Old West” and was inspired by the m a n y reasons to be thankful for modern medicine. When 2019 can feel tough, here are a few more medical things we can be grateful for.
Contrary to popular belief, doctors sought methods to put their patients under, or at least calm them down. That being said, solutions were limited. Ether was great, except that it could make people really sick and sometimes didn’t work. Whiskey was a staple, but it didn’t knock people out. The next time you get a cavity filled or have to undergo a procedure, you can thank your lucky stars that general and local anesthesia exist.
Maaaaan water is something I take for granted every day, and I need to be more cognizant of my privilege. There are still millions of people who don’t have access to clean water, including in our own country, and this is appalling and should not be overlooked.
In the West, clean water sources were hard to come by. People didn’t know about bacteria causing illness, and didn’t know to sterilize water (or sanitize medical instruments, but we’ll get to that). Cholera was a gruesome disease caused by unclean water that ran rampant in the 19th century. It could hit a person so fast that they would be fine in the morning, feel sick a few hours later, and die of horrific dehydration by evening. But I digress. In short, clean water is everything and more.
Simply put, women’s health was never a priority. Because examining a woman was indecorous, many doctors would only listen to verbalized symptoms—the stethoscope was actually invented because a doctor couldn’t hear through a woman’s “rather large bosom.” Autopsies were considered sacrilegious and as such, women’s symptoms and specific health concerns went largely undiagnosed.
Women dying from childbirth was also much more common—but perhaps most interestingly is that wealthy women who went to doctors or hospitals to give birth died much more frequently than women giving birth at home. This was because midwives had generations of knowledge about childbirth, whereas doctors had no clue.
In the 21st century, we still have a long way to go for women’s health, but we’re at least leaps and bounds from the preceding several decades.
“Why sure, let me operate on you in my muddy overalls with this scalpel that was used on another patient.” Clean medical rooms and equipment were unheard of, as was washing dishes with soap and water. As a result, you guessed it—people were sick a lot and many more people died. Sanitizing has made a massive impact on public health.
As mentioned, autopsies were considered sacrilegious and were rarely performed. When people died, the cause of death could be anything from “miasma” to “the jimjams”—no, literally that was a listed reason. Without knowing what caused death, prevention and proper treatments weren’t put into practice.
Autopsies might seem morbid, but they’ve likely saved millions of lives. Also, if you’ve ever watched “Law and Order: SVU” then you already know that the show wouldn’t exist without medical examiner Dr. Warner, the truest queen of all.
So thank you, medical examiners, doctors, nurses, researchers, scientists, and all those amazing people who helped advance medicine as we know it. Now if only they can figure out why my armpit sometimes feels weird and I’d be set.