Catherine Stang and Medicine in the Old West

A big thanks to the ladies from Petticoats and Pistols for inviting me to come blog! 


When I was working on my new release, The Bargain, I had a rare chance to do research with my husband.  (Not the way you’re thinking.  LOL.)  Like the hero in my story, my husband is a doctor, although in a different specialty.  The history of medicine is a hobby of my husband’s, so he enjoyed sharing with me what it was like to be a doctor back in the 1800’s.  I’d like to share with you what I discovered.       


The first Medical College in America was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1765.   American medicine in the mid-19th century was a far cry from today’s curriculum of 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, and 3-6 years of residency training.


Most aspiring doctors would spend a few months in a medical school for 2 terms, often without having a college degree, then spend a year or two apprenticed to a practicing doctor where they would learn the practical aspects of patient care.  Medical students were renowned for their raucous and drunken behavior.  Most medical schools in America were privately owned and run by individual doctors.


 Medical techniques were still rudimentary.  No anesthesia, save for perhaps intoxicating the patient with liquor, was available at that time for surgery – even ether was not yet available.  A surgeon was prized for his ability to perform operations quickly due to the pain, and a good surgeon could, for example, amputate a leg in about 2 minutes.


Antibiotics were still decades in the future, so post-op infections were the rule, with mortality rates for even simple operations running about 50%.  Wounds were usually cauterized with boiling oil or hot pokers after surgery.  The operating theaters in hospitals were often located in towers or in a separate building so that other patients could not hear the screams of the surgery patients.  Surgeries of the abdomen or chest were uniformly fatal.


Medicine theory was still grounded in the passive, nature-based principles of Hippocrates, a Greek physician from 4th century BC, and Galen, the 2nd century AD Roman physician. Some herbs were available in 19th century America and some plants were used, such as the foxglove plant which provided digitalis for dropsy, or congestive heart failure, but the mechanism of action was unknown and doses were not precise.


Hospital wards were unsanitary to say the least – often 3-4 patients shared a bed, and one could often awaken to find oneself sleeping with the corpse of a bedfellow who had passed on during the night.  Doctors had little knowledge of the germ theory, which was doubted and ridiculed by some doctors, so handwashing between patient visits, or even between the doctor doing an autopsy and examining his next patient, was rare.  No wonder people would do most anything to avoid going into a hospital when they could.


With standard medicine in such a state, many people sought out herbalists or homeopaths who, even if their nostrums were ineffective, at least did little harm and let the patient heal by themselves if possible.  This was preferable to the frequent bloodletting or provision of emetics and strong purgatives to make the patient vomit or have diarrhea which were among the “heroic medicine” treatments most doctors used at the time.


Of necessity, medical practice advanced during the Civil War, possibly due to the sheer number of patients. Attention began to be paid to basic hygiene as cause and effect perhaps became more readily apparent, and army physicians began to compare notes on epidemics and infection. Slowly, new methods of dealing with traumatic injuries were developed and patient care overall began to improve, although it was still primitive. Some believe that medicine advanced more during the Civil War than during any other four-year period in history.


My latest release, The Bargain, takes place in a Union field hospital in the closing days of the Civil War. It is the jumping off point for my Western series, Finding Home. Researching the medical practices of the time gave me a greater sense of admiration for the doctors of the Old West and what they went through to try to help others. 


I have an autographed copy of my new release The Bargain to give away. I’ll draw a winner from all the comments.  Thanks in advance for stopping by to leave a comment. 


The Bargain is available in print & e book from 


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35 thoughts on “Catherine Stang and Medicine in the Old West”

  1. Good Morning

    Wow what great research you did on Medicine. The civil war era has always been of interest to me. Isn’t it great to have something to share with your husband. Your new series sounds wonderful.

  2. Hi Catherine!
    That was some amazing and scary information. How ironic that the Civil War caused such devastation but then some good came of it.

  3. Good morning, Cathy! Glad to see you here in Wildflower Junction!

    The Civil War was an incredible era in American history, but like Maureen said, our forefathers were forced to find/make some good of all the horrors so many endured.

    Love your cover! Did you know it’s of a famous mansion in New Orleans? I’ve been there, and it’s gorgeous with those trees along the lane.

    Here’s a link:

  4. It’s amazing the human race survived at all given all the germs and lack of medicines that we take for granted today.

  5. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for your informative post.

    I recently read two books on Civil War medicine, the first by Louisa May Alcott (before she became famous for her book, Little Women, she worked as a volunteer nurse in an army hospital and would write very well received articles about the soldiers for a Boston newspaper.)It was great to read this nonfiction work by her and it was an eye opening experience for me.

    The second book is Civil War Medicine by C. Keith Wilbur, M.D. also a very detailed and wonderful history of how medicine progressed and changed to promote increased survival on the battlefield.

    Anyway, really good reading for anyone interested in this period in American History. I enjoy reading about Civil War time period romances. For many reasons, I think it was a very traumatic time for most Americans and to find love then, I think was just wonderful. (Ok so I am a true romantic. Sigh.)

    Congratulations on your book.

    Have a great weekend.

  6. What interesting research. Once again, I think we are so lucky to live today with all the medical breakthroughs. Medicine has certainly come a long way.

  7. What a great and informative post. Thanks for this look at yesterday. I appreciated learning so much. The books looks wonderful.

  8. Hi Catherine, it is great to see you here. I just love reading books about the Civil war and always have. You really do your research and I would say that would be an interesting thing to do. I just finished your book Locked in His Heart and thought it was a fantastic read. I can’t wait to read another one of your books.

  9. Hi, Cathy, How interesting to see what medicine was like then! It’s amazing how much it’s evolved since then, and also incredible that people survived those kinds of conditions! Interesting that the standards of evaluation were a little different then because of the circumstances–there are so many other ways of determining the worth of a surgeon these days! (although speed probably still isn’t an entirely bad one ;))

  10. My Mom used to tell everyone I should’ve been born 100 yrs earlier. I used to imagine myself as an early settler. But, thank God I’m not. It’s easy to see the romantic side of history and forget all the horrors of the day.

  11. Catherine, I have a question that’s pestering me for my book.

    My patient is stung by bees and her throat swells shut and they cut open her throat and use a tube thing to help her breathe until she can breathe on her own.

    1) did they do such a thing back then. It’s a favorite mini-op done by amateurs on tv today.
    2) if you cut into someone’s throat AND they’re esophogus, right??? wouldn’t you have to sew the esophogus closed AND the skin, two layers? And if you did this, wouldn’t the stitches stay inside the patient, in which case that would be bad, right? So I figured they’d sew the esophogus closed, and leave the outer wound unsewn, removing the inner stitches as soon as possible.

    Do you see what I mean?

  12. Hi Cathy,

    Great to have you back on P&P! It’s always a pleasure.

    You have an interesting blog. I learned a lot of things about early medicine I didn’t know. For instance, I didn’t know a doctor didn’t have to have a college degree to practice medicine. And how much could he learn in the few months they were in medical school? I’m sure it wasn’t enough. But at least they had to apprentice under a real doctor before they could strike out on their own. Although, I’m sure it was easy for someone to get around that apprenticeship. Keeping track of such things was probably not very good. I can see someone arriving in the West and hanging out his shingle with very little training. Gosh, that’d make an excellent plot!

    Glad to have you. Hope you come back again soon.

  13. Oh, I’ve got chills, Cathy. Like I did watching/reading John Adams when his daughter Nabby had a mastectomy without anesthaesia.

    I remember learning when I taught American Lit that the Civil War had so many amputations because the bullets/balls fired were so large, they just shattered bones and nothing else could be done. Yikes.

    As always, I am reminded what a rather spoiled 21st century creature of comfort I truly am.

    Thanks for the fabulous research.

  14. The Bargain sounds like a super read. Your research is fascinating – and makes me glad I’m living today, not then!

  15. Hi Catherine! I love reading books about the Civil War. Very interesting information on medical practices back then! I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go into the hospital either. It’s a miracle anyone survived! Your book sounds wonderful. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for sharing today!

  16. Hi Catherine! Fantastic blog! I enjoyed reading about medical techniques in the 1800s. Pretty scary stuff! It’s amazing how far we’ve come in the field of medicine.

  17. Hi, Cathy,

    It’s so good to see you here today! I love reading
    about medical history, my thanks to your husband for
    being your information source for today’s blog.

    Pat Cochran

  18. Hi Catherine!

    Being a nurse, I find all the research you have done regarding the practice of medicine during that time period so fascinating. It’s just amazing how many advancements have been made, but it all stemmed from the dedicated men and women that set the groudwork in the past. Thanks for sharing, and The Bargain sounds wonderful too!

  19. Hi Sherry,

    Thanks for leaving a comment. It was fun working on this blog with my husband. This is the first time we’ve done this. He enjoyed it so much that I might get him to do it again sometime with me.


  20. Hi Pam,

    I did know the picture was of a house New Orleans. LOL. I just love those old houses. I’d read about a house that had been used for a hospital and that gave me the idea for the book.

  21. Hi Zaharoula,

    Thanks for commenting. Those books you mentioned are great. Another one I that I found very helpfull was A Surgeon’s Civil War The Letters & Diary of Daniel Holt M.D. It not only told about his daily life as a doctor, but had series of letters between him and his wife. So you got the human element of being apart during a war. Some of the same conflicts couples have today they had back then. It’s really interesting read!!


  22. Hi Anita,

    We do tend to forget how rough life was back in the 1800’s. We have an old fort here and when I need a reminder I go over to Fort Larned for a visit. That’s a whole new blog idea… There are so many things I learned from there.


  23. Hi Tanya,

    It gives me chills too thinking of being operated on like that. It’s not always easy having surgery today. I can only imagine what it would be like after with little or no pain meds. It’s amazing that they lived to tell about it.


  24. Hi Linda,

    With no way to check I’ll bet there were guys out West who pretended to be doctors. Heck, you hear of people even now trying to do that today. You’re right that would be interesting plot.

    They could probably fix the little things, but would happen if they came across something they couldn’t do. Humm… makes you think…


  25. Hi Zara,

    I was born with a heart defect. I wouldn’t be here without the skills of doctors and nurses. I’ve had a number of heart surgeries over the years. What amazes me is how much beter it gets each time.

    I admire those doctors who are willing take risks and push beyond what they know so that they can help more people in future.


  26. I really like the stories about the Civil War as we had so many of our boys in it. My eldest son and daughter used to do the re-inactments and I did the sewing for their units. I made the coats, shirts, paints, frock coats etc., haver sacks, and even the ladies dresses. I made the men’s clothing from 100% wool I ordered from NY as our unit is confederate. I lost my g-grandfather and my husband lost some of his kin.
    If you have ever been to one of these events it will make your hair stand on in, even if you know it is all fake, when the men march toward each other on foot or on horses and they kept going until they met face to face and then they killed or was killed, I made the clothing but never went but to one of the battles, I could not handle it. But everyone should go to one if they ever have a chance, you will see HISTORY.

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