Western historian Dary (True Tales of Prairies and Plains, 2007, etc.) chronicles the gradual dissemination in America of enlightened sanitary, health and medical practices.
The author begins with Native American healers and the medicinal knowledge they gleaned from centuries of living off the land. After the Europeans arrived, both peoples adopted practices from each other. Shipwrecked Spanish physician Cabeza de Vaca treated sick Indians, who spread word to other tribes of his cures; early colonists learned how Native Americans made medicinal use of herbs and plants. Dary notes that when an epidemic broke out in Boston in 1721, Cotton Mather urged the use of inoculations, which he had heard described by a slave as routine practice in Africa. The “American Hippocrates,” Benjamin Rush, embraced “heroic medicine” involving bloodletting, purging, vomiting, sweating and blistering, which often speeded the patient’s death. There were no standards of education or certification for doctors until the establishment of the American Medical Association in 1847. Homemade remedies prevailed in a land where few doctors existed and immigrants had little understanding of the nature of disease. The author traces important work by pioneering physicians: the first writings on the relationship between environment and disease by Cincinnati’s Daniel Drake in the 1850s; John Sappington’s use of quinine for fever; experimental surgeries in gastric physiology performed by William Beaumont; and the efforts of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from an American medical school, who was inspired by Florence Nightingale to organize nursing and sanitary relief during the Civil War. Midwives, health-seekers in the West, Chinese medicine in San Francisco, elixirs and quacks all merit their own episodes. Dary’s anecdotal history ends with the folksy tale of his own grandfather, a country doctor in Kansas.
Very general, but an entertaining survey of the journey to American well-being.