Licorice Root to Leeches: Doctoring in 19th Century Erie and Warren County Pennsylvania
People depended on midwives and general practitioners for their medical care in 19th Century Erie and Warren County Pennsylvania.
Doctors and Midwives in Erie and Warren County Pennsylvania
People watched wide awake at their hearths for disease as vigilantly as they did for marauding Indians in 19th century Erie County, Pennsylvania. They brewed tea and swallowed bitter elixirs to drive away fevers and cold and measles and whooping cough. None of them dreamed that creatures so tiny that thousands of them could fit on the end of one of granny’s knitting needles were to blame for the miseries and often fatal epidemics that devastated entire neighborhoods and too often set fathers to fashioning tiny wooden coffins and mothers sewing burial clothes sprinkled with tears.
The Iroquois tribes that lived in Northwestern Pennsylvania believed that medicine men and women with special spiritual and healing powers could change the course of diseases. Later when disease-bearing white settlers came to Erie and Warren Counties, they brought home remedies and doctors along with them to fight ubiquitous fevers and other illnesses that periodically sprang up among them. Aunt Tamar Thompson, Aunt Nancy Range, Aunty McGuire and the Doctors Sherwood all practiced medicine in Erie and Warren Counties in different centuries and with different methodologies, but they all symbolize the medical transition from the 19th to 20th centuries.
Aunt Tamar, Aunt Nancy Range, and Aunty McGuire typify the practicality and adaptability of people struggling to conquer a new country. They faced its medical problems and used the material at hand to alleviate and sometimes cure them. When Dr. Alfred Carter Sherwood began his practice in the late 19th century, medical care had begun to be proactive instead of reactive and he and his son, Andrew Jackson Sherwood pioneered many medical innovations in Erie County.
Aunt Tamar and Aunt Nancy’s Early 19th Century Medical World
Abel Thompson came to Union Township in 1801, bought forty acres of land and set up a blacksmith shop within a mile of a mill located on the banks of French Creek. He brought a family of five sons, two daughters and his wife Jemima with him. They immediately began to carve a home and farm out of the thick woods and as they did so, they encountered the perils of the new land, including malaria that infested the marshy creek bottoms.
The Thompsons did not know that the pesky mosquitoes biting their backs and shoulders as they chopped down trees and dug wells were the carriers of malaria. They did know that the chills and fever made it necessary to dig fresh graves in the hilltop cemetery. They used home remedies like rhubarb, calomel and herb teas to try to ward off chills and fever, hemlock sweats to relieve cold miseries, and licorice root as an overall body tonic. They died of disease, childbirth, old age and were buried in the soil that they worked so hard to cultivate.
Abel Thompson, Jemima his wife, and Tamar his second wife as well as his sons Job, Joel and Caleb were all buried in the old Thompson Cemetery outside of Union City. They all went to their graves unaware of microbes and untended by “doctors from over yon” practicing state of the art medicine.
The Human Body Interacting with the Natural World
Nineteenth century medical theory said that the human body constantly interacted with its environment and that good health was the result of ensuring that one’s body maintained a proper equilibrium with its self and its environment.
Medical theory analyzed the human body in two ways. It said that all parts of the body were related to each other and that the body’s inputs and outputs were central to its proper functioning. Good health was maintained by proper regulation of this inputs and outputs.
A person whose body lost its proper balance of input and output became an unhealthy person. Since doctors believed illness was caused by disequilibrium, they designed their treatments to bring the body back in balance. They accomplished this by prompting the body to release elements including blood, urine, defecation and perspiration to return the proper balance.
19th Century Medical Prescriptions
Doctors used bleeding with or without leeches, as a pivotal treatment because they believed that the force of the illness would leave the body through the blood, relieving pain and weakening illness. Doctors prescribed drugs like calomel (a compound of mercury) to purge the body, opium to moderate diarrhea and relieve pain and camphor to cause sweating.
These drugs produced strong reactions that influenced the inputs and outputs of the body by producing vomiting, stopping diarrhea and prompting sweating Doctors also prescribed rhubarb and medicinal alcohol and early settlers in Erie County often carried their medicinal whiskey along with them in their daily pursuits. Patients expected doctors to institute these aggressive treatments so they would be dramatically and visibly cured.
Bates, Samuel, History of Erie County Pennsylvania, Warner Beers & Company Chicago, 1884
Bristow, Arch, Old Time Tales of Warren County, iUniverse, 2010
Conevery, Bolton Valencius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land, Basic Books, 2002
Coulter, Harris, Divided Legacy: A History of the Schism in Medical Thought, Vol. 2, North American Books, 1994
Nelson, S.R., Biographical Dictionary and Historical Reference Book of Erie County, Pa., S.R. Nelson Publisher, Erie, Pa., 1896
Rosenberg, Charles, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, World Epidemics: A Cultural Chronology of Disease from Prehistory to the Present, McFarland & Company, 2003
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1775-1812, Vintage Books, 1990
Walker, Captain Augustus, Early Days on the Lakes with an Account of the Cholera Visitation of 1832, The Cornell Library, New York State Historical Literature
Wilson, David, History of the Settlement of Union Township