Thursday, November 28, 2013



- pushing back the frontiers of Medicine

If you are a Gunsmoke fan you will doubtless have been amazed at how many medicines Doc Galen Adams crammed into that old black bag of his. He was prepared for any eventuality and would always have something that he could give to relieve the sick or injured.

Back in Wolf Creek Doc Logan Munro tries his best to stay up to date with modern medicine and surgery. He makes up all of his own medicines, often using herbs or traditional remedies that he has picked up along the way or been alerted to by Charlie Blackfeather.

But the way that the medicines were given is interesting, because in medicine you want to present a drug to the body in the most effective way that you can. 

The invention of the pill
We must go back into the mists of time to look at a great boon to mankind, the development of the pill as a means of delivering medicine. 

The ancient Egyptians seem to have been the first to come up with the idea. There are ten medical and surgical papyri, which detail treatments used in the days of the pharaohs. The Ebers papyrus, written about 1550 BC contains recipes for all manner of enemas, lozenges and pills. These early pills were hard compressed balls of clay or bread. In addition, they sometimes used the faeces of various creatures.

Now I guess you may have turned your nose up in disgust at that last sentence. But consider the times they lived in, with a pantheon of over 400 gods and goddesses. The world was a mystical place organised by the deities, and the priesthoods had rituals that covered just about every activity that could be undertaken. 

The scarab, the dung beetle rolled a ball of dung in order to lay its eggs inside it. This the Egyptians believed was symbolic of the god Khepri, the scarab-headed god, who rolled the sun across the heavens each day. 

The dung beetle rolling the ball was thought to be symbolic of the god Khepri

The scarab was the ancient Egyptian symbol of birth, regeneration and renewal as well as being used as a powerful talisman for health. It has been suggested that priest physicians invoked Khepri when they made their remedies, which they did as these crude pills, like the dung beetle.

Coating the pill
The basic design for the pill lasted almost 2,500 years until the Persian physician Rhazes (865-925 AD) improved upon it by giving it a coating. By using a psyllium-seed mucilage the solved the problem of the nauseating or bitter tasting pill.

                                                                 Rhazes (865-925 AD)

A  century later another Persian polymath, known as Avicenna (980-1037 AD) further improved it by coating his pills in silver or gold leaf. In an age of alchemy, precious metals were thought to enhance the effectiveness of medicines. An interesting boost to the placebo effect.

                                                           Avicenna (980-1037 AD)

The first London Pharmacopoeia
A Pharmacopoeia is a book of drugs with all of their ingredients, actions and side effects. The first London Pharmacopoeia of 1618 contained recipes for 38 pills. Of these, 23 were derived from medical works written in Arabic. Two were from Avicenna and one from Rhazes. 

This photograph shows a sample page detailing a purgative pill devised by Avicenna - Pilule Pestilentiales Ruffi.

The problem of bioavailability
Bioavailability means the readiness with which a drug can be absorbed and allowed to reach its target organs. The pills that had been in use for centuries often had poor bioavailability because the material they were encased in didn't break down in the intestines. In many cases it would be like swallowing and trying to absorb buckshot.

In 1834 the French pharmacist Mothes devised the gelatin capsule, which could be used to contain liquids or powders.These are still used today.

A real breakthrough 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 hypodermic syringe
We now come to a relatively recent invention, the hypodermic syringe. Being the sort of man that he is, Dr Logan Munro would certainly grasp its potential and soon be giving the citizens of Wolf Creek the benefits of the latest science.

Hypodermic comes from the Greek hypo, meaning 'under' and derma, meaning 'skin'. It therefore means syringing under the skin into the body.

This is one of the most important inventions in medicine, for it gave doctors a means of delivering drugs into the patient's system, by-passing the gastro-intestinal tract. That is often a good thing to do, especially if the person has an inflamed stomach or if they are vomiting and unable to keep anything down. But it wasn't invented until the mid-nineteenth century.

Syringes had been used in medicine for centuries, but for introducing fluid into bodily orifices, or to suck out fluids or pus. Some attempts to give drugs by injecting them into the body were made in the early seventeenth century, but they were not successful and fatalities did occur. In those days it would be highly likely that infections would have been directly introduced to the tissues.

The first necessity was to produce a hollow needle. This was done by Dr Francis Rynd (1801-1861) an Irish surgeon in 1843. He successfully develop a technique with a hollow needle for injecting opiates to treat neuralgia.

Dr Thomas Wood (1817-1884) a Scottish physician invented the first hypodermic syringe in 1853. Apparently he tried to copy the cation of a bee sting, so he used a hollow needle that could be attached to a metal syringe.  He used t to inject morphine and other opiates in the treatment of neuralgia, which was at that time  an umbrella label for all manner of painful conditions.

                                                      Dr Thomas Wood (1817-1884)

During the Civil War most surgeons simply dusted morphine into wounds or gave opium pills. Dr John Billings (1838-1913), a Lieutenant Colonel in the Union Army was the first doctor to use a hypodermic syringe in the field. Despite his advocacy of it, however, probably less than a dozen were used during the war.

                                                          Dr John Billings (1838-1913)

Dr Billings would go on to become one of the most prominent physicians and librarians in American medicine.

                                                 A mid-19th century hypodermic syringe

Syringes are used to inject subcutaneously (just under the skin), intra-muscularly (into the muscle) and intra-venously (directly into the blood stream through a vein). It is important to expel any air when giving an intra-venous injection, sine an air bubble can travel throughout the circulation as an air embolism. It can have the same effect as  a blood clot and could produce a heart attack, stroke or chest pain. They can be rapidly fatal. It is for this reason that you see doctors invert a syringe, as in the position in the photograph, tap it to get any air to the top of the syringe, below the aperture of the needle, then squirt some fluid out. This is to get rid of air bubbles to prevent an embolism.

Hell on the Prairie, the sixth Wolf Creek book features Keith (Clay More's) character Dr Logan Munro, the town doctor in THE OATH, a story about a spectre from his past. 

Logan has been in Books 1, 4 and 6, and 8 and appears in the second Christmas anthology O DEADLY NIGHT in the story THE SPIRIT OF HOGMANAY 

And his other new character, Doc Marcus Quigley, dentist, gambler and occasional bounty hunter continues in his quest to bring a murderer to justice, in RATTLER'S NEST in his  ebook short stories THE ADVENTURES OF DOCTOR MARCUS QUIGLEY published by High Noon Press.

DOUBLE-DEALING AT DIRTVILLE was originally published by Hale as a Black Horse Western, but is now available as an ebook from Western Fictioneers Library.


  1. As always Dr. Keith, a well written informative blog article about medicine of the past.

    How people survived back then was a miracle. And then of course, many died at forty and fifty, and infant mortality and death was always present.

    In this particular subject matter I prefer modern medicine, and, it can only get better.

    Nevertheless, very interesting about the Egyptians, their pills, and medicine, and also how pill making advanced and how the hypodermic needle was used in the Great Conflict.


  2. Thanks, Charlie. I didn't really expect anyone to look at the blog today.

    The great thing would have been to avoid infections. But back then the germ theory hadn't even been proposed. And indeed, surgeons used to actually want pus to develop, since they thought that was needed.

    Just he sort of subject to put you off your food!

    Happy Thanksgiving Day, Charlie.

  3. What a wealth of scientific and historical info!

  4. The idea of murdering someone by injecting an air bubble into their bloodstream has promise as a plot device --but could it be detected, in the 1870's?

  5. So much to know! I'm sure glad you posted this because I didn't have a clue, so nearly all my characters use elixirs. Do you know when medicating by syringe became common practice for country doctors?

  6. Hi Shay, it raises possibilities, but it would not be as easy as all that. First, to inject into a vein you need the person to comply while the vein was found. Then the amount of air would need to be large enough to evoke physiological change. You see, a bubble in a vein would flow to the heart. A large bubble there could interfere with the pumping of the heart. If it was pumped out of the heart it would go to the lungs where it may cause problems. It would not travel to the brain unless the person had a patent foramen oval (hole in the heart), which would allow it to pass from the right side of the heart to the left, where it would then be pumped to the cerebral circulation of the brain.

    Injecting into an artery would very likely be fatal with a much smaller amount of air. But that would be traumatic, there would be blood spurting and it would not be easy to do.

    In he 1870s an air embolus would not be known about or be detectable.

  7. Up to date doctors would be using syringes in the 1870s and certainly in the 1880s. They were reusable ones, of course, made of metal (silver) at first and then glass and metal.

  8. Great post, Keith. I was shocked to learn that pills were being coated as far back as 2,500 years. Which made me wonder why ALL pills aren't coated, but I'm guessing it has something to do with absorption?
    Also, a fascinating story up Doc Upjohn and his clever and obviously effective marketing technique. Thanks so much.

  9. Love these posts. I remember the crazy Vietnam vet in Coming Home who committed suicide by injecting air into his vein. Never seen or heard of such a way of inducing death in any other entertainment medium.

  10. As usual you have provided more information that I truly enjoy and is beneficial to my own research on early women doctors prior to 1900 in Colorado. Thank you. Doris

  11. Thanks, Tom. Yes, the early coatings made the pills less bitter, but they created absorption problems and reduced biovailability.

    But even today we use enteric coated tablets. These are designed to resist acid in the stomach and be slowly absorbed once the tablet has passed through the stomach into the small intestine, where it is absorbed. These are used on some aspirin brands and other NSAIAs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). This is to reduce inflammation the stomach. However, we now know that the side effects that you can get from aspirin and NSAIA's are not due to a direct effect of the drug in the stomach, but due to the drug's effect on the COX enzyme system.

    Effervescent drugs are another way of taking medicines, but recent research has suggested that the sodium content of effervescent drugs could be high enough to push the individual's sodium level beyond the recommended daily intake. That could be significant if they have hypertension (high blood pressure).

  12. Thanks, Charlie. Yes, it sounds as if it could be effective, but it would have an uncertain outcome.

  13. Thanks, Doris. You might be interested in a book called Doctor at Timberline, by Charles Fox Gardiner, MD. Autobiographical sketches of a young (male) doctor in Colorado in the 1880s.

  14. Keith, I highly recommend "Doctor at Timberline" to others who are interested in life and medicine in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. You are right it is an interesting book. Doris

  15. Doris, in that case it may have been you that recommended it to me in the first place! In which case, my apologies! But I agree, a great and useful book, which I now recommend to friends.