Being a pioneer was dangerous! Snake bites, accidents, frost bite, and food poisoning were all real dangers. Many people died from diseases such as measles, cholera, or smallpox. Doctors were few and far between and some of their cures did more damage than good.
- For hundreds of years, people believed disease came from bad “humors,” which could be foul air, evil spirits, or other negative things. The best way to get rid of these humors was thought to be by removing them from the body, usually by bloodletting, or draining some of the person’s blood. This practice was almost never helpful and many people died from loss of blood. Some researchers believe George Washington died after his doctors removed 40 percent of his blood to treat an inflamed throat.
- Prior to the Revolutionary War, American doctors traveled to Europe for training. At that time, European doctors were moving away from bloodletting to a more moderate approach of letting nature heal. They were also doing more scientific research. The quality of American medical care seemed to be improving.
- After the Revolutionary War, doctors in America stopped training in Europe. Medical schools opened in America, but most of them had very low standards. Almost anyone could get a medical degree. Treatments included bloodletting, amputating infected limbs, and prescribing questionable medicines.
- Medicine wasn’t regulated and even very dangerous concoctions containing mercury, opium, alcohol, and even cocaine were sold. Salesmen traveled from town to town peddling their medicines, which treated everything from sore throats to hair loss.
- American doctors didn’t believe in the European discovery that germs cause disease. If they had, they could have prevented many deaths simply by cleaning their hands and tools.
- Most pioneers couldn’t afford doctors or their medicines, which was probably a good thing. Instead, they relied on natural solutions like rest, diet, and herbal remedies.
- Cholera: a serious illness most often spread by dirty water
- Smallpox: a highly infectious disease that is no longer around thanks to vaccines
Watch a video about an old-time pharmacy that looks more like something out of a Harry Potter movie.
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