Thursday, July 24, 2014



- the blog about Medicine in the 19th Century 


Keith Souter

In he Doctor's Bag this month we shall look at some of the drugs that the town doctor in the Old west could dispense to his or her patients.

In how many movies have you heard a character ask the town doctor for some medicine to cure some complaint or another. Very often  it is a request for  a painkilling drug and more often than not the doctor just happens to have a bottle of laudanum all ready in his bag. When you write a Western novel and have such a scene intended, you may want to stretch the request beyond a need for laudanum. Having your town doctor treat other conditions may make the doctor-patient interaction more realistic.

Doc Adams in Gunsmoke could always make and dispense a remedy. At a recent visit to the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City I sought out Doc Adams and found him with some of the accoutrements of his trade. As I am sure you all know, he was played beautifully by Milburn Stone.

The G stood for Galen. Interestingly, this was a name chosen by Milburn Stone when the show transferred from radio to television.  It was a great choice, since Galen of Pergamum  131-201 AD) was an ancient Greek physician whose teachings dominated medical thought for well over a thousand years. He moved around a lot and at one time was the physician to a gladiator school.

A group of medicines were referred to as Galenicals, after him. Essentially, these were drugs that were used to balance the four vital fluids of the body, or humours as they were referred to. This was an archaic belief that the  body contained these four fluids - blood, black and yellow bile and phlegm - an that imbalance resulted in disease associated with the excess or deficiency of one or other of them. various herbs and minerals were known to have particular effects, so they were given to correct perceived imbalances. The cucumber, for example was used in medicines as a cooling galenical - hence, as cool as a cucumber. There is some rational, actually, since it is rich in natural salicylates, which like aspirin the modern day wonder drug, has anti-inflammatory effect and reduces abnormal temperature. Doctors in the 19th century were still practising the art of medicine rather than the science. It was a mixture of theories, empirical observation and peddling of treatments passed on from one generation to the other.

Just look at the bottom of the picture of Doc Adams and you will see his pestle and mortar. This is something that most doctors would have, for pounding ingredients when making medicines.

Mortar and pestle from author's collection

The mortar is the bowl and the pestle is the club-like implement used to grind and pulverise. They are tools that have been used to compound medicines for millennia.

A brief history of the pill
It probably comes as no surprise to learn that the ancient Egyptians invented the pill as a means of taking medicine. The Ebers papyrus of about 1550 BC outlines different ways of taking medicines, by enema, lozenges or pills. The pills were made of clay reread with the medication mixed through. Often they used the feces of animals as a binder and as a medicine.

The Persian physician Rhazes (865-925 AD) improved it by using a psyllium-seed mucilage that made the pills less bitter and nauseating.

A century later, the Persian polymath Avicenna (980-1037 AD) improved it further by using a fine coating of gold or silver foil.

Over the following centuries, other coatings were used, but they all had a disadvantage in that they allowed for only partial absorption of the active ingredient into the body. The problem was that many coatings were too difficult for the body to digest and much of the medication could simply pass straight through. On the other hand, sometimes too much would be released and absorbed, producing side effects from too much. We refer to a drug's bioavailability. That means the readiness with which it is made available to the body.

In 1834 the French pharmacist Mohes invented the gelatine capsule, which is rapidly digested allowing  good bioavailability. We still use these today, of course.

One of the greatest advances came in 1884 when Dr William Upjohn (1853-1932) patented a 'friable pill,' which was made by compressing powder into a pill shape. This would then dissolve in the stomach and be absorbed quickly. It had good bioavailability. 

Dr Upjohn lived, qualified and practiced in Michigan. He knew that his invention was a winner, the problem being to persuade other doctors to use his friable pills rather than their own hard pellets. He did it by sending thousands of pine boards along with traditionally made pills and his own friable pills to doctors all over the country, inviting them to  try to hammer the traditional pills into the board. They often did so without breaking, showing how hard it was for the body to absorb. In comparison, one of his friable pills could be turned into powder, ready to be absorbed, merely with the pressure of the thumb. It was a brilliant and persuasive image which became the logo of The Upjohn  Pill and Granule Company that he and his brother formed in Kalamazoo in 1886. It was to become one of the pharmaceutical giants of the 20th Century.

It changed the face of medicine.

The town doctor of the Old West had some effective medicines
Nowadays with our modern drugs is is easy to be smug and think that the town doctor on the frontier would have little to offer the patients under his or her care. That actually is not quite true. In fact, there were quite  number of medicines that he was able to obtain or manufacture. Your town doctor in some future novel may lie to use one or two of these.

In preparing drugs he would probably have a copy of the Pharmacopoeia of the United States of America. A Pharmacopoeia is a book of drugs with all their ingredients, actions and side effects.The first London Pharmacopoeia of 1618 contained recipes for 38 pills. In the early 19th century doctors in the USA used the European ones, until the first American one was published by the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1808. Another was published by the New York Hospital in 1816. Then in 1817 it was decided to produce a national one. This went through a lengthy production and was finally published in English and Latin in 1820.The fifth edition was produced in 1873. I use the sixth edition (in writing Western novels) of 1880.

A frontier town doctor could compound his medicines using some rudimentary equipment, a mortar and pestle, some pipettes, flasks etc. He would need a set of balance scales and various measuring devices. And he would need various reagents. All are listed in the Pharmacopoeia.

Apothecaries’ measurement
Weighing out ingredients for remedies was a complex business and a whole system of Apothecaries measures were used.

One pound or one grain
One pound = 12 ounces
One ounce = 8 drachms
One drachm – 3 scruples or 60 grain

An apothecary’s teaspoon was used to measure one fluid drachm.  This was equivalent to a quarter of a tablespoon.
When the household teaspoon size increased it became the equivalent of a third of a tablespoon, which it remains to this day. The Apothecary’s teaspoon, however, remained the same measure.

One could imagine the potential dangers that could ensue with drugs, many of which were extremely toxic, if the wrong spoon was used.

 This is one of the most effective drugs that the doctor would have had. It was used to treat dropsy, or heart failure. We still use it as digoxin. It is one of our oldest effective drugs in cardiology. It is a type of drug called a cardiac glycoside. 

It is  a purified drug that was first extracted from the foxglove plant, Digitalis lanata. It was discovered by William Withering (1741-1799), an English physician in 1785. He had noted that an old woman who practiced herbal medicine used a concoction for treating dropsy, which was the archaic name for heart failure. She achieved dramatic results and he analysed her concoction of twenty ingredients and worked out that the digitalis was the active beneficial agent. Digoxin increases the strength of the heart contractions and slows down the heart. Its effect would have been almost miraculous. 

Dover's Powder
This is a mixture of opium, ipecacuanha and sugar of milk. It was sedative in action, so could calm folk down. It also induces a perspiration reaction. We call these diaphoretic drugs. Back then it was believed that you could sweat an illness out. It was commonly used.

This was made from the fried flowers of the plant, a native of the Old west. Made into a tincture, it dealt with strains and bruises.

Tartar emetic
Rather like giving a diaphoretic to induce sweating, it was thought that making someone sick could get poison out of their system. We cal these drugs emetics. This one was made from crystals of antimony and potassium tartrate. The antimony is emetic and also a diaphoretic.

Ipecacuanha emetic
This is another general purpose emetic. We used it a lot in casualty departments (Emergency Rooms in the USA) in hospital, after someone was brought in having taken a drug overdose or poison.

Of course, this is tincture of opium. It contains about ten per cent opium and it is reddish-brown. It was very bitter. It was an analgesic and sedative. In small doses it is also a cough suppressant. Indeed, the doctor could make up various types of cough remedy, often incorporating this.

Carrying case from the author's collection. It has a spring inside the bottom of the cylinder to cushion the medicine bottle inside. A good idea if it was in the doctor's bag being jostled in a buggy or a special medical saddlebag

This is an extremely old medicine. It was a white powder of mercuric chloride. It had profound laxative qualities and was a mainstay of treatment for infective conditions and syphilis.

Nux vomica
This was another of the multi-use medicines. It is prepared from the beans of an east Indian tree. It contains strychnine, which of course, is a highly poisonous agent. It was used as a stimulant, as indeed other poisonous substances like arsenic were used throughout the 19th century. It was used for digestive problems, heart disorders, depression (referred to as melancholy then), and erectile dysfunction in men.

Here are the Pharmacopeia of the United States of America, 1880 instructions:

Nu x Vomica, in No. 60 powder, two hundred parts...., 200 
•Sugar of Milk, recently dried and in fine powder, 
Water , each, a sufficient quantity, 
To make one hundred parts.... 100 

Mix Alcohol and Water in the proportion of eight (8) parts of Alcohol to> 
one (1) part of Water, and, having moistened the Kux Vomica with one 
hundred (100) parts of the menstruum, pack firmly in a cylindrical perco
lator ; then add enough of the menstruum to saturate the powder and 
leave a stratum above it. When the liquid begins to drop from the per
colator, close the lower orifice, and, having, closely covered the percolator,, 
macerate for forfcy-eight hours. Then allow the percolation to proceed, 
gradually adding menstruum, until the Nux Vomica is exhausted. Be-
serve the first one hundred and seventy (170) parts of the percolate, distil 
off the alcohol from the remainder, and mix the residue with the reserved 
portion. Place the mixture in an evaporating dish, and, having added 
fifty (50) parts of Sugar of Milk, cover it with a piece of thin muslin gauze, 
and set aside in a warm place, where the temperature will not rise above 
50° C. (122° IT.), until the mixture is dry. Lastly, having added enough 
Sugar of Milk to make the mixture weigh one hundred (100) parts, reduce 
it to a fine, uniform powder. 
Preserve the powder in a well-stopped bottle. 

Seidlitz Powder
This was an effective antacid for stomach acidity. It was effervescent when added to water, because it contained an acid and an alkali. They react to produce carbon dioxide.


Bicarbonate of Sodium, infine powder, 

four hundred and eighty grains 

 480  grains

Tartrate of Potassium and Sodium, infine powder, 

fourteen hundred and forty grains 

 1440 grains

Tartari c Acid, in fine powder, 

four hundred and twenty grains 

 420 grains 


Herbal preparations
In addition to the formal medicines of the day, many doctors would also use herbal preparations. remember that frontier doctors were a disparate group, many having had no formal training, or perhaps having simply served as an assistant to a doctor until they acquired sufficient experience and training to go it alone. Some, of course, merely bought a qualification from one of the many diploma mills. If you are interested in what types of doctor practiced back then, you can refer back to my very first Doctor's Bag blog.

Herbal medicines have been used for centuries and there were many such preparations used by Native American medicine men. We shall have a look at some of the herbal remedies used in a later blog.

My alter ego Clay More has a couple of recent releases.  

The Doctor published by Western Fictioneers in the  West of the Big River series

- my novel based on events in the life of Dr George E. Goodfellow

Redemption Trail published by Western Trail Blazer
- a novelette- novella

Sam Gibson used to be a lawman, until the day he made a terrible mistake that could never be taken back. Since then, he has alternated between wishing there were a way he could redeem himself and believing he deserved punishment. 

He’s about to get both… 

And coming soon from Hale

Fate handed Hank Hawkins the opportunity of achieving his ambition of buying a ranch, and all he has to do to make it happen is to make it easy for a gang to rob the stage in Devil's Bones Canyon. Hank soon realizes, however, that the robbers never had any intention of leaving anyone alive and had planned a dry gulching. He survives but regains consciousness back in Hastings Fork, he vows to track down the murderers who betrayed him and have his revenge. But, when he sets off, he finds he has a companion - Helen Curtis, the fiancee of the messenger whose death lies on his conscience. Hank has many things to figure out, such as why there was one body missing and things are about to get even more complicated with the threat of death for both of them never far away.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Western Comics Focus: Lobo, a comics first

Troy D. Smith

Are you familiar with the 1960s western comics hero Lobo?

If not, it's probably because the series only lasted two issues -and the reason for that is a story in itself.

Lobo was published by Dell Comics in 1965. The hero was a black cowboy whose true name was unrevealed, but who was known as Lobo. It featured scripts by D. J. Arneson (at that time Dell's editor) and art by Tony Tallarico. (As is often the case in such situations, the two creators disagree on which one actually first came up with the idea.)

Lobo is significant despite its short run because it was the first mainstream comic book in history to have an African American title character. (Starting in 1950, Atlas Comics -later known as Marvel- had "Waku, Prince of the Bantus" as one of their four rotating leads in Jungle Tales, but he was African not African American, and was not the title character.)

A few months after Lobo, the first black superhero debuted in a guest spot in the pages of The Fantastic Four: The Black Panther (actually predating the organization of that name by a few months.) But like Waku, Black Panther -alias T'Challa, King of the fictional African country Wakanda -was African, not African American. The first African American superhero was Sam Wilson, AKA The Falcon, who became Captain America's partner in 1969; the first African American superhero with his own title was Luke Cage, in 1972. DC Comics had their first black headliner with Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella in 1977.

But Lobo preceded them all.

The first issue begins with a group of black Union soldiers being informed the war is over. The man who will become Lobo exclaims "After four years of being a soldier, I am a free man again! A free man!!" When the squad is attacked by Confederates who had not received word of Lee's surrender, and are forced to kill them, Lobo expresses his disgust with war and decides to head west and start a new life for himself.

He gets a job as a drover on a cattle ranch. Soon he is framed for murder, with no hope of clearing his name as the true killer dies before he can confess. The man known as Lobo wanders the West- "A fugitive on the side of the law" -righting the injustices suffered by others. There is some evidence he is a wealthy man, as he leaves as a calling card gold coins inscribed with a wolf's head and an "L" for Lobo (his exclamation about being free again now that the war was over might suggest he had been a successful free black man before the war.)

The book's creators were both white men who had been in the comics profession for some time- Arneson was from Minnesota and Tallarico was from Brooklyn. They believed that a black cowboy would generate interest and be a good hook. In fact, Lobo's race was never mentioned by himself or any of the other characters; he didn't behave or speak according to any stereotypical or stylized notions of black men. He was a competent, heroic man who just happened to be black.

But his race was going to matter.

By the time the second issue came out, sales were in for issue #1. And they were abysmal, not just for Lobo but for many of Dell's other titles. You see, a company's titles were tied together in a bundle to be delivered to newsstands. And all across the South, when newsstand owners saw Lobo they rejected the entire Dell bundle. The company had no choice but to cancel the title- they were just a little bit too ahead of their time.

Despite Lobo's brief career, he (and his creators) have received their due over the years, with accolades from many civil rights organizations. But even so, you will be hard-pressed to find another black cowboy headlining a western comic -unless I'm forgetting someone, the only character to come close was Marvel's Reno Jones. 1973 saw the debut of Reno Jones and Kid Cassidy: Gunhawks! The white partner, Kid Cassidy, was killed in issue #6, and in issue #7 the title of the book became Reno Jones, Gunhawk! But there was no issue #8, as the book was canceled.

Here's a tip of the sombrero to Lobo, and all the fun stories he could have appeared in.

Finding an actual copy of those two issues might prove to be a Tolkienesque quest, but you can read them in full at this blog.

On the bright side, there is apparently a comic-book crossover between Zorro and Django in the works. Really.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Adobe--Part 2 Gordon Rottman

Raising an Adobe House
How to make adobe bricks and their properties were discussed in Part 1 on Saturday, July 19.

Now that we know how adobe bricks are made, let’s build a house. As with any style of housing, adobes varied significantly in quality even though the same basic materials were used. It depended on the owner’s affluence, resources, preferences, help, and time.
In the 1800s a cheap built peon’s casa adobe was extremely simple with few amenities. I’ve spent the night in a couple that are still used as outbuildings on ranches. The ground was merely leveled and construction began—no foundation. Sometimes a several inches deep trench was dug to set the first course of bricks. Some dug a shallow trench and placed thick flagstones as the foundation. These are the ones most likely surviving today.
Bricks are laid one course at a time all the way around the building so there is no weight buildup on any one portion. That might cause an uneven wall as the heavier section settles before the rest. This includes interior walls. The mortar was the same as the brick material, but without straw. It was of course of a different consistency, perhaps a little wetter to make it more workable. The mortar work usually looks sloppy—not like the neat smoothed mortar seams we see in conventional brickwork—if the interior and exterior are to be plastered.
Heavy timber or log lintels crown doors and windows to support the bricks above these openings. Plank door and window frames, the latter often with shutters, are secured to the walls by screwing or nailing the fames into “gringo blocks”—wooden blocks set in the place of bricks.

The wall here is unusual in that it is so thin. Note the lighter colored wooden "gringo blocks" set in the edges of  of the door and window openings to which frames will be attached.

Peons often had only packed dirt floors. Some laid a clay and sand mixture which was smoothed and buffed to make it quite durable. Others laid a layer of sand and paved it with flagstones and adobe mortar grout. Another method was to lay and grout adobe bricks.
An old adobe updated to a office. Behind the open door can be seen an un-plastered adobe wall and the floor is paved with adobe bricks.

Stucco-like plaster, usually with more sand than regular adobe mortar, was plastered 3/4 to almost 2 inches thick on interior and exterior walls, the exterior only if cost was an issue. This protected the bricks from weathering, especially rain which severely erodes adobe over time. Un-plastered interior walls do generate dust so if not initially plastered, may of have been later. Sometimes 1-1/2 to 2 feet high rock-facings protected the bases of exterior walls from rain-splatter. Regardless, there are old un-plastered compound walls well over a hundred years old, and while heavily eroded, are still sound.
Thick walls are needed not only support the heavy walls and roofs, but to insulate the building. Mexico and the Southwest is a land of climate extremes. During the day the sun heats the thick walls insulating the interior. After sunset and the temperature drops, the heat transfers into the house. It will not keep it toasty warm all night, but it helps. By sunrise the interior has cooled as has the exterior wall and the process starts over. A veranda, especially on the south side of the house, shades the walls and keeps the interior cool longer. A veranda supported by adobe or stone arches is especially effective sun protection. High ceilings allowed hot air to rise. Windows were located not so much for the view, but for air circulation.
Roofs were supported by 8-10-inch diameter beams called vigas, usually no longer than 15 feet—the characteristic log ends jutting from adobe roofs. Wider buildings have a central load-bearing wall to support spanning vigas. They were set 2-3 feet apart. Spruce and Ponderosa pine are popular due to their resistance to splitting as they dry. Overlaid perpendicularly to the vigas was a thick layer of 1-2-inch diameter limbs—the latías. This is usually mesquite, but carrizo cane is also used. A layer of adobe mortar was spread over this to seep between the latías bonding them. Adobe bricks are laid on the mortar, often a bit thinner and wider, or square-shaped, compared to wall bricks. They are grouted and another layer of mortar laid followed by a second course of bricks. These too are grouted and a third layer of mortar spread. Most roofs are flat, but some had the slightest rain-draining slope. Modern roofs have cement in the mortar, but more commonly low pitched title roofs are used today. A poor man’s roof was adobe mud with a higher clay content, then a thick layer of packed dampened earth, and then a layer of mortar. This would have to be replaced after several years. Modern adobes have plastered ceilings.
To the right of the door is a small entry courtyard. Vigas supporting a bedroom roof are to the left.

Adobe houses were typically long and comparatively narrow, a series of rooms set end-to-end. There might be a door in each interior wall, but some rooms at least could only be entered from outside doors. There were no hallways. Owing to the massive weight of adobe bricks and the lack of structural supports other than walls, seldom will adobes higher than two stories be seen.
As rugged as they are, adobes were particularly susceptible to earthquake damage. Modern building codes in Mexico and America require structural steel or reinforced concrete support. An 1800s lead rifle bullet or even a modern full-jacketed bullet will not penetrate an adobe wall (I’ve tested it).
Adobes are interesting structures to which scant attention is given. Now that you’re a little familiar with these buildings, it might provide a bit of color in your writings. In The Hardest Ride I briefly describe the adobes on the DeWitt Ranch in south Texas. In the coming sequel, Ride Harder, I provide more description of the old six-room adobe ranch house Bud and Marta take over.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I’m watching my grandson, Noah, build one of his amazing Lego creations. He’s already constructed the 237-piece Star Wars-themed set, per the instruction booklet, in just over thirty minutes. (It would have taken me a week.) 
Lo and behold, he breaks down the finished assembly. Now he’s following his imagination and designing on the fly, using the same 237 parts. He calls the new incarnation an Alliance Night Blade. It has rakish wasp-like lines, a number of hinged and rotating parts, and several weapons of planetary destruction. Theoretically, it’s capable of speeds upwards of Mach 5, hovering indefinitely (with no apparent need for refueling), vertical takeoffs and landings, and possesses enough fire power to take out all the bad guys in all the known galaxies combined.
It occurs to me that, just as Noah fashions interlocking plastic shapes into spacecraft, I spend hours (most of them enjoyable) fitting words together…about the West.
My mother tells me that I began forming sentences in fairly comprehensible English at nine months. I love words, always have. They’ve gotten me into trouble on occasion, and out of trouble more times than I can remember. When you love words, it’s a no-brainer to also love books. I worked in the library through high school and college just to be near them. 
I majored in engineering (long story!) and grew accustomed to having professors return my laboriously-researched technical essays with the suggestion at the top: “Have you thought of becoming a writer?”
If you hang around words long enough, you begin to develop favorites. Yes, I know…every word has its place and what would we do without all the unglamorous workhorse words like invoice, vitamin, refrigerator, dentist and the like. I shouldn’t be biased. But, gosh…some words are just so darn gorgeous. For instance, who wouldn’t rather read about lingerie than underwear?
When it comes to literary genres, I can’t think of a more perfect one for the placement of pretty words than westerns. Take a look at the geography itself. Pronounce these words slowly: Arizona, Wyoming, the Dakotas, California, Montana, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico.
I was on the fence about Utah until I said it a few times. It does have a pleasing, ancient ring to it. But, Texas? I’m not so sure about that one. Guess it sounds prettier if you’re from there. Just joshing, Texans.
Oh, the places you’ll write! Coeur D’Alene, Santa Fe, the Sierras. Linguistic loveliness.
By the way, we’re talking about words that are euphonious, which sounds awfully nice itself. It means “pleasant of sound; agreeable to the ear.” Euphoooonnnnioussss. Mmmmm.
The Spanish gave us some beautiful western words with high roll-off-the-tongue factor. Consider canyon, vaquero, adobe, lariat, remuda, and adios, amigo. And, of course, we must remember…the Alamo.
Townes Van Zandt’s song, “Pancho and Lefty” would never have been a hit if not for the line, “All the Federales say they could’ve had him any day.” Just my opinion.
Even the French helped out western writers with ravine, cigarette, cheroot, belle and chignon. The dictionary is a writer’s jewel box.
No boring landscape descriptions for us. We can plant picturesque saguaro, sage, piñon or willow wherever we want. On a mesa or a prairie or a few yards from home, arguably the sweetest of all names.
Why use ordinary colors when you can wordpaint with violet, saffron, vermillion, ivory, maroon, and cerulean or azure blue? Personally, I adore the word silver and use it every chance I get. Silver tongues, silver stars, silver nuggets. Love it.
I even love the sound of certain horse terms: withers, muzzle, dappled, sorrel, appaloosa. I am constantly looking for an opportunity to use the word fetlock. So under-utilized in modern literature, don’t you agree?
Some of my personal faves are silhouette, shadowy, velvet, statuesque, lithe, lilting, and realm. Oh, and demure, dalliance, and crystalline. I’m in porcine paradise. (And to think I could have settled for "hog heaven.")
There are many “Most Beautiful English Words” lists out there and they contain a lot of “ous” words such as mellifluous, voluminous, luscious, sumptuous, and tenuous. According to the Alpha Dictionary, their list-topper is ailurophile, meaning “cat lover.” I’ll have to disagree since I’m neither a fan of the word nor of cats.
Then we have those wolves in sheep’s clothing words that sound fetchingly exotic but, believe me, you want no part of: jaundice, influenza, anemia, shingles, seizures, and E. Coli, to name a few.
This compilation of words into a discussion of words themselves could stretch into infinity. However, I have deadlines and must set about arranging lovely words into, hopefully, even lovelier sentences, much the way my grandson digs for just the right Lego pieces to form an x-wing.

For my next western story, I’m determined to work in a silver fetlock reference or two. There must be a way.