Technology exploded during the Gilded Age—the steam engine, electricity, the telegraph—marvels to behold! One would think medicine and health care would be right on track. Unfortunately, this was not the case. “Knife and pain” were two words always associated in the surgery-bound patient’s mind. Blood-letting (as much as a pint a day!) was still the “sure” technique to cure most illnesses—even into the late 1870s.
The brave folks who headed West discovered a new ailment: malaria, also know as the ague, which struck its victims with fever and chills. Very few escaped this disease. It was so common to Western life that it was considered normal: “He ain’t sick. He’s only got the ague” was an oft-heard remark.
Doctors were few and far between, if you could call them doctors at all (more about that later). Doctors could make two – three times as much money in the cities than in the country, so why would they hang around out West? The only treatment folks usually received was “He purged me, he bled me, he poked me. He never cured me.” So whiskey often served as a quick and effective pain-killer—it made the patient dead drunk.
Maybe you’ve complained about the high insurance and medical costs these days. Who hasn’t? Let’s take a look at what people paid for their health care in the late 1800s. Perhaps you’ll wish you were living back in the Old West.
Office call: 50 cents
House call (per mile): 50 cents (this could get expensive if you lived on a remote ranch 20 miles out of town). Some doctors would charge less if you fed his horse.
Labor and Delivery: $4.00
Fractures: $2.00 – $10.00
When you think that the average working-class family earned about $10.00 a week, it’s plain to see that most folks could hardly afford private medical attention. However, all things considered (the blood-letting, purging, sweating, etc.), this may not have been a disadvantage, and they probably lived longer.
Because guess what? The average patient had no clue if the new doctor (who had just hung up his shingle on the main street of Dodge City) was legitimate or not. The lack of education and proper licensing exposed the sick to all kinds of quacks posing as physicians. The medical field in those days did not attract the sons of the elite (they’d rather be lawyers), but instead attracted folks who saw a chance to get rich quickly. Most medical schools (and I use the term generously) were really diploma mills that required students to take only two, 4 – 6 month courses (the second course being a repeat of the first course). Even Harvard Medical School, which did have higher standards, rejected the idea of requiring a written examination for their graduates in 1869!
The diagnosis of the patient was based on guesswork (whether the doctor was educated or not), and the cure was totally unreliable. Sometimes the patient recovered; more often he did not. Especially if any kind of surgery was involved. During this “kitchen-table surgery,” the rural doctor was generally indifferent to any kind of cleanliness. Some of his instruments were not even rust-free (are you shuddering yet?). The doctor kept the sutures strung through his lapels or between his teeth for a handy reach. I guess the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” took on an all-too-serious meaning in the Old West.
The next time you visit a friend in the hospital, take a look around and send a prayer upwards that this place actually helps people get well rather than sends them quicker to the afterlife. Truly, the hospitals of the 19th century were the last resort for the poor. No person with any money at all would enter the doors of such a place, preferring rather to stay in their own, relatively clean and safe beds at home. I will mention that the Mayo Clinic was an exception to the general rule, but a private room in 1880 was $3.00 – $5.00 a day. Besides, the Mayo Clinic was a far cry from the Old West. Even so, most people knew that a hospital was a place to avoid, especially if one valued his or her health!
When you look at the news and wonder what our American health-care system is coming to, take a little trip down memory lane and try to imagine your health-care options of the late 1800s. Hollywood has glamorized most aspects of the Old West, but the truth is: The Good Old Days . . . They Were Terrible!
In honor of the release of my new Circle C Adventure Book 6, Andrea Carter and the Price of Truth, I’m offering an autographed copy. You can read the first chapter at www.circlecadventures.com
To enter the contest, just leave a comment about some aspect of health care—modern or old-time. Perhaps you have a health-care story from grandparents or great-grandparents. Share and win!