Texas Medicine Article

Texas Medicine of the 1800s

Although the nineteenth century has been termed “The Golden Age of Medicine” the doctors of the Texas wilderness still practiced medicine much as it had been practiced since the Middle Ages using the ancient Greek theory of the four “humors.” Blood was thought to come from the heart, phlegm from the brain, yellow bile from the liver, and black bile from the spleen. According to this theory, disease and sickness occurred because of an imbalance in one these humors. If one was in excess, it had to be removed or equalized, hence the use of emetics to induce vomiting and the practice of cupping or draining a certain amount of blood to remove the “harmful humor.”

Wounds and bacterial infections caused the majority of deaths and disabilities. Doctors of this time battled malaria, yellow fever, pneumonia, cholera, dysentery, post partum infection, tuberculosis, measles, and small pox. They could splint fractures, suture wounds, perform amputations and drain infections (and all with unsterile technique.) For medical instruments, many had only stethoscopes. Other tools—saws and knives came from the kitchen.

For a treatment to be effective, most thought it had to have a foul smell or taste. Powders were sought over tablets, and colored tablets over white ones. Some medicines in use at the time included quinine, calomel, blue mass pills, belladonna, ipecac, columbo, asafetida, boneset, squill, pokeweed, hog’s foot oil, castor oil, digitalis, lobelia (or Indian Tobacco.) There were many home remedies and poultices and plasters were common—some producing enough heat to burn the patient.

Morphine or laudanum was often prescribed for pain relief. Also, paregoric (camphorated tincture of opium) was used to inhibit diarrhea, coughing, and to calm fretful children. The concept of drug dependency was not considered. Anesthesia (with nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas) was not used for surgery until 1844, although one New Orleans doctor used ether several years earlier. Before this, the most sought-after surgeons were the ones who worked fast so that the pain would be less. In 1847, chloroform was first used for pain during a delivery.

My second book is The Rebel and the Lady. This story takes place during the famous battle at the Alamo and the rebels are the Mexicans and Anglos in the Texas Territory who want to secede from Mexico’s rule. Researching the battle, I learned that Santa Anna de Lopez, the president of Mexico, brought only one physician on the charge north—for his own personal use. There were no doctors or medics for the common soldier–nearly 10,000 men, not to mention the wives and soldaderas that followed. For the Texians at the Alamo’s small hospital, medicine ran out two months before the battle. People had to depend on home remedies, folklore, and borrowed knowledge from the Native Americans, using whatever was on hand for their aches, pains and sores.

Here are a few home remedies used back then. Do not try these! I have no idea as to their efficacy or safety, but I found them interesting to read about. Information was obtained from A Pinch of This and a Handful of That; Historic Recipes of Texas 1830-1900.

Snake and Spider Bites — Beat onions and salt together, wet tobacco, mix thoroughly. Split wound and apply at once.

Warts — Take a persimmon stick and put as many notches on it as you have warts. They will go away.

Sores — (1895) Powdered alum is good for a canker sore in the mouth. Never burn the cloth bandage from a sore; you must bury it for the sore to heal.

Knife Cuts — (1853) Clean wound well and apply a piece of fat bacon or fat back. Strap it on for several days.

Puncture Wounds (Nails, Gunshot) Put some old wool rags into an old tin can, pour kerosene over the rags and light. Then smoke the wound. This also works with chicken feathers.

Boils or Infection — (1890) Salve: Take one part hog lard, two parts quinine and mix.

Bleeding from the nose — Bathe the feet in very hot water, while at the same time drinking a pint of cayenne pepper tea or hold both arms over the head.

Other bleeding — Place a spider web across the wound.