Pioneer Medicine

Pioneer Medicine

Living during the pioneer days was dangerous. We have to remember that when the pioneers set out to travel across the country; they didn’t have doctors and hospitals. Medicine during that time was very limited, and the pioneers faced the possibility of major illnesses or death from everything from frostbite and food poisoning to diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and measles.

  • The pioneers didn’t have the antibiotics and treatments that we are accustomed to, and many of the medicines they used were based on both natural items and what we might call silly beliefs. It wasn’t their fault because medicinal treatments weren’t as advanced as they are today. One belief that they had was that disease started from bad “humors.” This was the idea that evil spirits, bad air, or anything negative could get into the body. They thought getting them out of the body could be accomplished by draining some of the sick person’s blood. Today we know that this is wrong and can cause damage.
  • Doctors were needed in many of the pioneer towns. Most of the American doctors went to Europe to be trained, and there were improved and more scientific approaches to medicine. Prior to this, almost anyone could get a medical degree, and some towns used their local barber for treating things such as pulling teeth or even more major ailments. Therefore the barbershop pole of today continues to have the red and white symbol for blood and bandages.
  • During the pioneer days, there weren’t any regulations on medicines, and many of the mixtures that people made were often toxic. These often included opium, mercury, cocaine, and alcohol. Traveling salesmen would go from town to town selling some of these concoctions that promised to cure a lot of illnesses and problems.
  • During this era, European scientists had discovered that germs caused many diseases. American doctors didn’t believe in this, and therefore they refused to wash their hands or their medical equipment. Many deaths from infection might have been avoided if they had listened.
  • Natural and herbal remedies remained a base for a lot of the medicinal treatments. Doctors also used some common sense that included bed rest and a healthy diet. But even natural remedies couldn’t help when the situation was serious. Broken bones, gunshot wounds, snakebites, and major internal injuries, appendicitis, and tuberculosis were common in the pioneer days. Because a doctor was often miles away, many women died in childbirth. Even with a good midwife, childbirth could have complications, and both mother and baby could die.
  • Many of the remedies that they used on their farm animals were also used on people. These could be salves made from roots and herbs and concoctions made with hot or cold water. Treatments often included ginger, cayenne pepper, vinegar, senna leaves, salt, camphor, rhubarb root, and liniments for bruises and sprains. Some of the herbal and natural treatments were eventually moved to the local apothecary so he could create medicines specific to the illness.
  • Disease names common during the pioneer times but rarely heard of today included lung fever, consumption, and inflammation of the lungs. Consumption was also called galloping consumption, lingering consumption, or quick consumption. These were all various names for tuberculosis, which killed many throughout the world.
  • One of the major problems during the pioneer days was that bathing wasn’t encouraged. Cleanliness within a house might be common, but people thought that bathing would get rid of the natural things that protected them. You can imagine that living with people that didn’t bathe very much wasn’t a pleasant thing. However, we know that bathing with soap and water gets rid of germs and bacteria.


What were the “humors” that the pioneers believed in?
Evil spirits, bad air, or anything negative could get into the body

What European scientific discovery did American doctors reject during the pioneer days?
Germs caused disease

What did the pioneers call tuberculosis?

What might have stopped many of the infections during the pioneer days?
Doctors washing their hands and tools and people bathing regularly

What does the barbershop red and white pole stand for?
Blood and bandages

What was a common way that women died during the pioneer days?