As I headed back to Broadmoor United Methodist Church for another installment of Dr. Trenton James’ class, the weather was beginning to turn cooler and Halloween decorations were visible on many of the houses in the neighborhood. My mind was wandering to today’s topic – how medicine was practiced during the time of the Civil War.
“Yes,” I thought as I entered the room, “the weather is changing.” This was evident by the number of people wearing sweaters.
After adjusting the microphone, Dr. James began on a brief overview on Pica, a compulsion that includes eating unusual things. “Even when I worked in a free clinic not long ago, people were still eating clay and dirt. Some eat ice excessively. It’s a cultural tradition,” said Dr. James, referencing the habits of some rural people who ate these, apparently because their bodies craved the iron content.
“Is that the same as babies eating the lead paint off the cribs?” asked one student. “No,” shouted a retired doctor in the back. “That’s teething.”
Shifting gear, Dr. James then described the minimal schooling needed to be a physician in the 19th century. He said that many young boys would be a doctor’s apprentice for about two years and then might attend a few sessions at a medical school.
“Most of them were simply following the rule in the country, ‘Make a momma happy.’ That’s probably still true,” he joked.
Dr. James added that the boys had other jobs as well because they weren’t getting paid by the doctors as they apprenticed.
“I know the doctor who delivered me in Donaldsonville, Percy LeBlanc, was someone I looked up to. He didn’t go to medical school until Huey Long opened the first one at LSU,” explained Dr. James. “Funny story…my dad supposedly dropped my pregnant mother off at Dr. Leblanc’s hospital and went see The Mask of Zorro with my siblings. When they came back, I was there.”
The storytelling ended when a break was called. A few attendees had started to bring their lunch to eat since the class was right in the middle of the day. They had the right idea as my stomach was growling uncontrollably. “Why hadn’t I brought something to eat?” taking a mental note to be better prepared next time.
Dr. James started back with an introduction of the common medical practices of both the Union and the Confederate armies. Horse-drawn wagons and buggies were turned into ambulances. They made for an uncomfortable, bumpy ride for the wounded.
Many of us were surprised to learn that some of today’s familiar pharmacy companies were around during the Civil War, including McKesson and Pfizer.
The South mainly used drug substitutes. Ladies planted medicinal gardens that held dogwood bark and poplar then mixed whiskey to make a popular tonic called “old indigenous.”
Louisiana had two labs that made castor oil and turpentine. “We left it to Tennessee and Kentucky to make the whiskey,” said Dr. James.
Dr. James said when it came to practicing medicine during the war, the biggest
problem was cleanliness and sanitation in hospitals and camps.
During the war, gunshot wounds were extremely dangerous. The solid lead bullets moved erratically, and when they entered the body, they tended to flip, tearing through the skin. The result was bigger wounds and more internal damage.
Wounds weren’t the only concern. Diseases were actually the biggest killer during that time. Chronic diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid were among the most dangerous.
This lead to Dr. James’ conclusion that factors such as sanitation and disease contributed to a huge amount of deaths during the Civil War.
“Our next class will be on folk medicine. And, I’m not going to tell you how to treat yourself.”
*Emily Mastrantonio is a Communications Specialist for eQHealth Solutions. Special thanks to Osher Life Long Institute for allowing us attend Dr. James’ leisure class.