The Pioneer Doctor Exhibit is intriguing with its tiny labeled bottles of medicine, strange retractors, tubing and saws. Some of the items in the exhibit date back to the Civil War. The old wheelchair looks as out of date as a Model T does when compared to our modern cars. However, the dental chair seems dreadfully similar to today’s dental chairs. A curious orthopedic surgical bag of Dr. John T. Brown is on display, as well as items of Dr. William Floyd, Dr. O.W. Lowrey, Dr. Kermit Jones, and Dr. T.M. Hall. Dentists contributing to the exhibit include W.R. Hammond, Uriah Gilder, and Tommy Williams. Dr. Elworth Lowrey spent many hours gathering items from doctors in the area and might be called the “father” of this exhibit.
I recently had a nice conversation with Dr. William Floyd about pioneer doctor’s training, medicines, diseases, and common beliefs. He is often a docent at Coryell Museum and enjoys answering historical medical questions. He interned in 1957 at Walter Reed in Washington D.C. which at the time was a magnificent, modern hospital that helped thousands of GI’s.
He told me that in the 1800’s a common, but harmless cure was whiskey poured over rock candy and then a little was given to a coughing child to sip. This did stop the coughing, but did not cure the basic problem that was making them cough. It would help them to at least get a good night’s sleep.
A medication erroneously and commonly given by doctors in the 1860’s was tincture of opium. This is certainly a controlled substance now, but then the side effects were not known. Children with asthma would be given tincture of opium as it would stop coughing and wheezing. However, opium is a depressant that shuts down the respiratory system to the point that many children died. Also, children with diphtheria would need to cough and spit out the mucous in their throat, but the opium would stop their coughing as well as expectoration, and again many died.
Early doctors formed a group called the Coryell County Medical Society. Dr. Floyd remembers that the records tell of a Dr. Hamilton who was a trained surgeon and he gave a lecture on how to perform appendectomies successfully, with anesthesia. Anesthesia was new and unknown for most doctors at this time. Before this, appendectomies, gall bladder, and caesarean surgeries were never done. The patient in those days died needing these common surgeries.
Dr. Floyd said that before anesthesia several strong men held down the patient while the doctor operated! Dr. Floyd said a large bell was often rung when surgery was being performed to drown out the screaming. Well, now aren’t we all appreciative someone figured out a safe way to administer anesthesia.
Doctors in the late 1800’s had offices in town, but also went out on house calls. There were also circuit doctors who went from community to community treating people. A doctor at that time needed only one year of internship with a practicing physician, and no formal classes were required. Amazingly, Coryell County had about 20 doctors at this time. They traveled by horseback or with a horse and buggy and this method of travel did not allow much flexibility in the speed or distance. Each community or town needed a doctor so he would be near enough to handle his house calls. This is for the same reason all these small communities had their own schools, because travel was limited by the time it took to ride your horse to your destination and return. This is similar to “commute times” today for folks living far away from their job.
In 1840 typical charges for service by a physician were found in an article online titled “Doctors, Healers, and Health: The State of Medicine in the Old West”. The charges were as follows: Treatment of a wound made by a bullet that went “clean through” $1-2; removal of a bullet, $1-5; lancing of a carbuncle 50 cents, correction of a broken nose, $4. If he doubled as the town dentist he would charge 50 cents to pull a tooth, and $1 to $3.50 for dentures.
For traveling to the patient, the doctor charged $2 for the first mile and 50 cents for every mile thereafter. Country visits from the doctor at night were double this rate. Normal fees were a dollar for the consultation, and medications as needed could add 25 cents to $1.50 to the cost. This was expensive, but still people wanted the treatment by the physician. A doctor’s visit could easily run $10. Wages for a male teacher by 1860 were only $72 a year, and for a female, $54 a year. Not everyone had cash money in their pocket. This lack of monies caused the doctor to be paid with a variety of goods such as hams, vegetables from the garden, livestock or laundry and clothing repair.
Dr. Floyd said that when he was just beginning to practice medicine in Gatesville, the older doctors would tell him about conditions they had seen in the 1920’s. Folks in general believed that the mists off the Leon River caused malaria and other illnesses. They didn’t realize it was the mosquitoes. In the summer, when the Leon reduced down to pockets and puddles it became a prime breeding area for the mosquitoes. Malaria was successfully and correctly treated with quinine even in the 1920’s.