Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nineteenth Century Medicine And Herbal Remedies On The Oregon Coast

During the later half of the 1800’s, settlers began to move out to the Oregon coast for homesteading.  The coast experienced a time of transition from Aboriginal People’s culture to European-American and Asian culture (settlers).  Aboriginal medicine relied upon shamanistic removal of disease objects and the application of herbal remedies using indigenous plants.  Settler medicine in the late 1800’s relied upon doctors, who were often poorly trained and not licensed, and herbal and chemical remedies compounded according to the Remington and Wood Dispensatory.  When doctors were not available or were not trusted, books such as Gunn’s Domestic Medicine were consulted, or local herbalists who used plant remedies were visited.  

As culture transitioned from aboriginal to settler, herbal remedies remained a mainstay of medicine.  However, the source of herbal remedies changed from indigenous to a combination of local plants and a greater reliance on imported formulas and medicinal species found in the eastern U.S. and in Europe.  The settler medicine formulas often incorporated chemical medicines in addition to plant sources.  A primary focus of the medicines was to relieve pain and act in general ways to rebalance the patient, through digestive, purgative, and emetic means.  Common medicine found on the Oregon trail included purgative pills, castor oil, rum, and peppermint oil.  Laudanum and mercury were used extensively.  The germ theory of modern medicine had not been developed yet.  Instead, 1800’s medicine relied on the ancient Greek theory of the four humors: yellow bile; black bile; blood; and phlegm, corresponding to fire, earth, air, and water.  Bleeding and cupping were common.  Surgery was conducted without disinfection or anesthesia and often resulted in death from infection.
Pharmacists were important sources of medicine for settlers.  They formulated medicines for a wide variety of doctors and they gave advice to customers about using medicine.   Melancthon M. Davis, born in Lane County in 1851, was one of the best know pharmacists in Oregon during the late 1800’s.  He assisted in framing and enacting the initial medical and pharmaceutical laws of the state and was instrumental in establishing the pharmacy program at the Oregon Agricultural College.  In 1874 Mr. Davis married Mary Bushnell and in 1881, they moved with an infant daughter to Newport, where they started a drug store.  In 1884, when a railroad was built between Corvallis and Yaquina City, the Davis family moved to Yaquina City and started a drug store there, where they lived and practiced medicine until 1893.  They would probably have been an important source of medicine for the settlers in the area.  Residents in the Beaver Creek valley, just south of Yaquina City, brought produce and milk to Yaquina City and probably traded with the Davis family.  M.M. Davis owned land near Beaver Creek marsh and the ocean, so he would have been familiar with Beaver Creek settlers and their farms.  He also had tracts of land in the Yaquina estuary and in 1909, built the first dredge to be used on that bay for diking and reclaiming tidelands.  His land became one of the finest dairy farms in the state.

Posted by michael

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