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Healthcare before hospitals

May 16, 2019

There was a time when doctors treated certain illnesses by mixing a variety of natural products—including leaves, eggs, turpentine, tobacco, worms, and animals—over a fire and putting sick patients in a room with little ventilation or light, in order to inhale the fumes.Even medical textbooks instructed doctors to apply this method, which sounds much less enjoyable than a day at the spa.

Next time you’re feeling ill, you can rejoice in knowing that you don’t have to go through this treatment.  Healthcare and medical knowledge has advanced so much in the past century since Perry Memorial Hospital was first established.  It can be easy to take our modern abilities for granted.  Someone can have a knee replaced and walk out of the hospital the very next day; 100 years ago, that recovery time would have been unthinkable, let alone replacing a knee.

Prior to hospital services, rural areas were dominated by “frontier medicine,” consisting of home remedies and traveling medicine men armed with magic potions that “guaranteed” good health.  Remedies included skunk oil, bloodroot, ginger or cayenne pepper, black pepper, rhubarb root, senna leaves, and castor oil.2  Remedies came from natural products—mostly plants—and often served as tea.  People suffered from “congestion of the lungs,” “lung fever,” “inflammation of the lungs,” and “consumption.”2

Imagine living 100 years ago in a rural community and getting sick or injured.  You would have three options:  find a doctor, treat yourself, or die.  There were no ambulances.  No helicopters to Life Flight you something that had the resources to treat you. 

Most likely—unless you were wealthy enough to own one of the first cars—your family would have to load you up in an uncomfortable wagon or prop you up on a horse and travel quickly, for many miles, along uneven roads to search for a physician with the knowledge to help.  Health insurance did not exist, so your first concern would be having enough money to pay the fees directly to the doctor.

Following the Civil War, medical knowledge advanced by leaps and bounds, and doctors and even hospitals were becoming more common.4  Nevertheless, where hospitals or sanitariums did exist, they were overcrowded with patients laying side-by side.  They were unclean, in rooms with little ventilation.  Doctors and nurses rarely washed their hands before seeing and touching patients.  Many people thought the skin held crucial oils that would be removed by bathing, so cleanliness was not a priority.5 

Fortunately for areas like Bureau County, physicians were migrating from the east to take advantage of the newly developing area.  Although they treated many patients in their offices, doctors were known to travel great distances to treat patients in their homes. Occasionally, a physician would convert rooms in their own home to house acutely ill patients.  Otherwise, patients lacked opportunity for quality nursing care, closer medical treatment, or supervised care. 6  Dentists were even rarer than doctors, who were, therefore, responsible for extracting teeth after they had decayed enough that only the roots remained.2 

Today, hospitals around the world are working to be as different from frontier medicine as possible.  Hospitals are becoming less and less about treating the sick and more and more about educating the public to prevent illnesses and injuries.  Health centers are being established at convenient locations to offer quick service, hospitals educate the population and offer opportunities to receive vaccines and preventative screenings, teams work exclusively to advocate for patients and to prevent infections and injuries, professionals are staffed at all hours to monitor patients’ health and attend to their needs, and—even though health care is not an exact science—doctors and nurses rely solely on medicines, procedures, and tests that have been well-researched and produced trustworthy results.  Fortunately, pregnancy tests are no longer conducted using African frogs.

National Hospital Week is a time to recognize the dedicated staff that make healthcare possible.  For rural communities, access to local hospitals can be life-saving in emergency situations and convenient for access to treatment and family providers.  For people in the community, hospitals mean the possibility of healthier, stronger, happier lives.