Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Book Review: Frontier Medicine by David Dary

Frontier Medicine
From the Atlantic to the Pacific: 1492-1942
David Dary
Knopf; 2008

Frontier Medicine is a fascinating overview of the progression of the practice of medicine over the almost-500 years since Christopher Columbus landed on the continent. He begins with Indian medicine and the white man’s early settlement in the colonies. He then moves forward chronologically in his chapters that discuss several topics, such as fur traders and trappers, the Lewis and Merriweather expedition, the Civil War, and then the rush of westward migration afterwards. He also covers the concept of “Going West for Your Health,” midwifery, patent medicines, and even quacks.

That’s a lot of territory to cover, so to speak. And I have to admit that I began this book with some trepidation, knowing how overviews can end up superficially addressing their subjects and leaving the reader feeling like she has been rushed towards the exit door. Dary even admits in his forward that covering such a wide expanse of such a huge topic wasn’t his original idea; he began the project intending to only cover medicine in the American West during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I am fascinated with the topic, which I guess is hereditary: my grandfather’s novel Doc Dillahay was centered around a young man training to be a doctor in frontier Arizona.

But I was not disappointed and in fact I could not put Frontier Medicine down. Yes it is an overview, and those of you who write Western novels and want extensive information on frontier treatment methods will probably only get your curiosity partly satisfied. But you could do a lot worse.

Dary writes an outstanding narrative that gives you ample detail on the treatments used and also on how little physicians had in the form of supplies, training and knowledge. Add inclement weather, hostile Indians and the occasional rattlesnake and you see how much anyone who attempted to practice medicine on the frontier had to deal with. Many couldn’t handle it and quit and went back to the East Coast.

The concept of a full-time medical doctor - one who strictly and exclusively dedicated their work to helping and saving the sick – is a relatively new concept. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, doctors were scattered about, most of them making a living in other fields including doctoring. Anyone who practiced medicine was pretty much anyone who was called upon to help another person. As a result, the inter-dependence between the Native Americans and the various groups of emigrants when it came to treating each other is striking, but not all that surprising.

Dary writes matter-of-factly, almost perfunctorily, and he occasionally covers the careers, lives and deaths of a litany of various physicians and medical pioneers, sometimes so much that you think you’re reading the County Records. But it’s a small price to pay for such a good book. Besides, you can get a lot of ideas if you’re looking for interesting characters for your next novel. There is also a Glossary of “Old Medical Terms and Slang” and an impressive bibliography.

Dary ends the book with a discussion of his grandfather, Dr. Gilbert Dary, and his work as a general practitioner in a small town in Kansas at the turn of the century. This endeared me to Dary, as my great-grandfather followed an almost identical path. Dr. Dary ended up practicing in Hartford, Kansas after 1919 until his death in 1938. My great-grandfather, Dr. John H. Powers, practiced in Little River and then practiced at a hospital in McPherson until he died in 1933. They may have known each other. Dary’s narrative on his grandfather isn’t self-indulgent in any way; rather, it’s a good example of what turn of the century doctors had to cope with on the cusp of both a new era in America and in medicine.

Dary has already written several books on the history of the West: Cowboy Culture, The Santa Fe Trail, The Oregon Trail, Red Blood and Black Ink, among others. When I picked up this book at the Autry Museum (one of my favoite haunts when researching for Pulp Writer) a few weeks ago, I noticed another one of his books on the shelf: Entrepreneurs of the Old West. I chose this book, but now I’m kicking myself for not buying the Entrepreneur book as well. Oh well, I guess that means I'll just have to go back up to the Autry again - soon.

11 comments:

Jan Mader said...

Beautiful blog.

I'm a children's writer and dog/animal lover. I haven't felt much like writing this week, but I've been blog walking.

Please stop by for a visit sometime.

Ann Parker said...

Hello Laurie!
This sounds like a great book... I need to find it and add it to my reference library. Thanks for the review.

BTW, I can heartily recommend another one of Dary's books that you mention in passing: Red Blood and Black Ink: Journalism in the Old West.
It was one of the books I referred to often when working up my newspaperman for my Silver Rush mysteries...

Looking forward to more reviews!

Laurie Powers said...

Hi Jan:
Thank you. I just visited your website ignitetowrite and I love it. And I'm so sorry about your Kelly. I know how hard it is to lose a pet and I understand why you wouldn't want to write right now. I'm going to put your blog on my list.

Laurie Powers said...

Hi Ann!
Thank you so much. And I haven't forgotten that I will be interviewing you in the near future. When is your next book coming out and what is the title? I have got to get my questions together.

Ann Parker said...

Hi Laurie!
The book is LEADEN SKIES and it's coming out in July... exact date is hard to say. I've seen "July 5" bandied about. I don't have any ARCs left or I'd send you one... shoot!

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Laurie,
Glad to hear you found Day's book to be a solid read. I used it as reference material for my last book, "Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears: 50 Gritty Moments of the Old West" (due out in the late fall of '09) and found it helpful and fascinating.

Cheers,
Matt

David Cranmer said...

"... how little physicians had in the form of supplies, training and knowledge" puts a lot in perspective. Probably most midwives had just as much experience and schooling. Interesting. Sounds like a very informative read.

Laurie Powers said...

Matt, your new book sounds fascinating. You'll have to remind us when it comes out so I can get a copy and do a review.

Chris said...

I just checked and my library has this book! Whoo hoo!! I'm totally checking it out. My wife is a nurse, too—bet she'll find this interesting as well.

Thanks for the great review, Laurie.

ARCHAVIST said...

This is one I have to add to my library.

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