Shamans, Sawbones, and Saddlebag Surgeonsby John Scott on Jun. 14, 2012, under Uncategorized
We’ve all seen the movies that depict gunshot wounded Civil War soldiers getting limbs cut off to save their lives. It makes us cringe to think of that. However, we know that’s where medicine was back in the 1860′s. Battlefield surgeons had little choice when it came to the threat of infection and the amount of damage a .58 caliber mini-ball would do to an arm or leg. Sanitary practices were so poor that a sliver in your finger could mean the loss of that digit.
After doing some research, I immediately became thankful for how far medicine has come in the last 140 pus years.
Following the war, many doctors went on to ply their trades out west. Up until that point, settlers were subject to practices of a homegrown nature or relied on voodooism or shamanism. Major issues such as malaria, cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever were the great killers of the west. If a community had one of these, there would likely be a 50% fatality rate. Doctors did what they could, but the medicines were not available or simply not invented yet. Whiskey was ok for cleaning wounds and making you…numb. But it did little to cure a fever.
Arizona Territory had some shining stars in the field of medicine. Dr. George Goodfellow, resident physician in Tombstone, led quite a career. Also known as the “Gunshot Surgeon”, he was the doctor who saw a lot of action during the Earp/Clanton feud. He also performed the first appendectomy in Arizona. When he was not pulling bullets out of drunken miners or delivering babies, Dr. Goodfellow was doing research (e.g. the effects of reptile bites) for medical books. I guess golf hadn’t really caught on at that point.
The first hospital in Arizona was St. Mary’s in Tucson. Built in 1880, it had a whopping 12 beds. Some of the nurses were the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Ring a bell? One of the physicians, Dr. John C. Handy, was instrumental in getting organized health care going in Arizona, and trained many of the nurses. Later on, Dr. Handy fell prey to a speeding bullet. When word got to Tombstone, Dr. Goodfellow hopped a train to lend a hand. Sadly, he was too late to help his colleague, but his dedication is legendary.
If you want to investigate further, head to the History of Pharmacy Museum in Tucson, where you’ll find collections of bottles and artifacts pertaining to all things medical. Up Prescott way is the Fort Whipple Museum, housing some good items from their military hospital. The Arizona Historical Society has a section with just about every medical implement known to 19th and 20th century physicians. By the way, some of those surgical instruments are not for the squeemish.
The next time you are waiting interminably in that doctor’s office reading Highlights magazine, consider how far medicine has advanced since the 1880′s. It might make you feel better!