Weird History

What Was Going To The Doctor Like In The Old West?

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.