The Old West wasn't all cowboys, saloons, and shootouts. Pioneers living on the American frontier also relied on doctors for all kinds of medical treatments. Epidemics, accidents, and STDs kept doctors busy. But unfortunately for patients, the majority of frontier doctors lacked a medical degree. In the Wild West, anyone could pretend to be a doctor and promote treatments like drinking sulfur or applying leeches.
The frontier was a dangerous place. Rich Bar, California, a booming Gold Rush town, attracted 29 doctors who were constantly busy. One of the doctor's wives wrote, “In the short space of 24 days, we have had several [slayings], fearful accidents, [passings], whippings... and a [terminal] duel.”
Sometimes medical treatments were more dangerous than the conditions they treated. Frontier doctors prescribed a mercury compound that made people's teeth fall out. They performed surgery without anesthesia. One doctor recommended treating patients by bleeding them from the jugular. It's not surprising, then, that some pioneers declared frontier doctors were doing the devil's work.
It was common for doctors in the Wild West to practice medicine without a formal degree, and some "doctors" had no formal training at all. The shortage of medical professionals on the frontier made it possible for self-taught healers to practice cutting-edge medicine.
For example, in 1827 a former janitor performed the first successful Caesarean section in the West. John Richmond worked as a janitor at a medical school where he listened in on lectures. He called himself a doctor and performed a C-section without ever seeing one before. Richmond wrote, "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 patient never complained of pain during the whole course of the cure."
Successful is a relative term in this case, and Richmond's account of the procedure has been debated. While the mother survived the procedure, the child did not, and author Jacqueline Wolf wrote that the patient begged Richmond to stop over the pain in Wolf's book Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence.
Even trained doctors relied on dangerous treatments in the 19th century. Dr. Daniel Drake, a founder of Ohio's first medical college, strongly advised bleeding for patients "whose pulse is nearly imperceptible." If the doctor's lancet couldn't induce blood flow from a vein, Dr. Drake recommended cutting the jugular.
Blister treatments involved peeling off patients' skin to rub on irritants. Some doctors even wrapped cotton around their patient's skin to burn it away, an intensely painful "treatment."
Frontier treatments were sometimes more dangerous than the disease. Doctors treated many conditions with purgatives, meant to clean out the patient's system. They commonly administered massive doses of ipecac to induce vomiting. Even worse was calomel, a mercury compound so strong that it weakened patients' gums and caused their teeth to fall out.
By the 1840s, frontier doctors began administering quinine, an effective and safe substance. However, it remained extremely expensive. A single ounce of quinine could cost more than a fattened cow.
Doctors conducted autopsies, declared notorious outlaws expired after shootouts, and sometimes had to perform unorthodox surgeries to save patients' lives. One frontier doctor wrote, “I slit the throat of the child choking with diphtheria, opening the windpipe and kept it open with fishhooks.”
Superstitious people sometimes believed doctors were performing the devil's work. In one case, a doctor performed an operation on a Sunday morning. His patient, who suffered from a large ovarian tumor, underwent surgery without the benefit of anesthetics. A crowd gathered outside of the doctor's office, declaring that the doctor was "butchering a woman" inside. The superstitious mob didn't stop the surgeon. His patient survived a 25-minute procedure which removed a 22-pound tumor from her abdomen.