THE DOCTOR'S BAG
the blog about the medicine and surgery of yesteryear
the blog about the medicine and surgery of yesteryear
Dr Keith Souter aka Clay More
Writers are often asked where their story ideas come from. Years ago I read an article by Stephen King in Writer's Digest in which he said that as a horror writer his ideas came from his nightmares. In the same book there was a reprinted article by W.Somerset Maugham who stated that his story ideas came from his notes, his imagination and experience. He always carried a notebook of observations and tended to write in the first person, which he admitted was a device he used to gain verisimilitude. Using his imagination and personalising his observations he was able to craft a tale. Also in the book was an article by George Antonich, in which he justified his subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle, because he obtained the ideas for his short stories from the news.
There are so many ways that writers get the germ of an idea for a story. As a doctor I often get snippets of ideas from past cases. Not necessarily my own cases, but those of doctors of yesteryear. This happened when I was trying to come up with an idea for a story for The Untamed West, and I discovered the remarkable Dr Bernard J.D. Irwin, recipient of the Medal of Honor and the strange and harrowing case that he treated during the Apache Wars. It does not make easy reading and it speaks volumes about the horrors of war.
Dr Bernard J.D. Irwin (1830-1917)
Born in County Roscommon in Ireland, he moved to the United States with his family in the 1840s. He attended New York University and later New York Medical and graduated in 1852. He served as physician and surgeon on Ward's Island before being appointed Assistant Surgeon to the US Army in 1856.
Dr Irwin served during the Apache Wars and was involved in the famous Bascomb Affair in 1861. In February of 1861 Second Lieutenant George Bascom led a group of 60 men from the 7th Infantry after Cochise on a rescue mission in Arizona Territory, but were besieged . Dr Irwin with 14 men of the 1st Dragoons caught up with the war party at Apache Pass and by ingenious strategy tricked Cochise into believing that he led a lager party than the fourteen men. The Apaches fled and Boscomb and Irwin united and were subsequently able to complete their rescue mission.
For his actions Dr Irwin was chronologically by action awarded the first Medal of Honor, although the medal did not exist at the time and he was not actually awarded it until just before he retired in 1894.
Dr Irwin's Casenotes
While doing historical medical research I came across this case in the American Medical Times of May 17, 1862. It is worth reproducing it verbatim.
Body Transfixed by a Bayonet: Recovery - Dr B. J. D. IRWIN, Medical Inspector 4th Division Army of Ohio, USA, relates the following remarkable example of this -
"In the early part of February, 1861, the various tribes of Apache Indians, inhabiting the mountainous regions of Arizona, broke into open hostilities against the government, perpetrating atrocities and unheard of cruelties upon the unfortunate white settlers, and touring their luckless captives in the most barbarous and cruel manner. Unfortunately, prisoners were starved, others tied up for slow target practice, and some were hung up by the feet and broiled to death by fires built underneath their subverted heads. It was during this re-enactment of this furious crusade, that the following interesting case came under my supervision.
"A small party of our troops were hemmed in, in one of the gorges of the Chiricahua Mountains, by superior numbers of Indians, who were endeavouring to capture our slender force. We held some prisoners of theirs as hostages for the safety of some citizens in their possession, whom we desired to exchange. On a certain occasion, the prisoners in our possession, whom we desired to exchange attempted to break away from our guards. One robust athlete, aged about 25 years, was knocked down by the sentinel by a blow from a musket on the back of the had, and held pinned to the earth by a bayonet which transfixed his body. The weapon entered the abdomen in the anterior upper angle of the left hypochondriac region, passed directly backwards and downwards, and made its exit a little below the posterior corresponding space, about two inches from the vertebral column. The victim was held in that position for some moments, until succour arrived to secure him and his desperate associates. A paroxysm of momentary weakness was all that appeared preternatural in him. The amount of hemorrhage was very slight, and the man did not present any of the symptoms to be expected from so serious a lesion. He was tied and placed on his back, kept strictly quiet, and the cold water dressing applied - snow water was used from necessity. The diet allowed was of the sparest kind. Not a bad symptom appeared, and on the fourth day the wounds were perfectly healed by adhesive inflammation. He complained but little of any pain or distress, which I attributed to the innate pride of his stoical character, being a brother of the chief of his tribe, he held it beneath his dignity to manifest any external show of physical or moral suffering. On the ninth day he walked to the place of execution, where he, with five of his companions was hung to the boughs of two stately oaks, overshadowing the graves of some fourteen of our citizens, whom the savages had treacherously and cruelly tortured to death while prisoners in their hands. As we were desirous of making a lasting example to our treacherous foes, the bodies were allowed to remain suspended permanently, which prevented my making a postmortem examination of the body of the one whose case I have described."
The impression of the case
I was not expecting the matter-of-fact tone in the recounting of this case. The resulting execution took me by surprise. In researching this case and the Broscomb Affair it seems that Dr Irwin's patient was the brother of Cochise and some of the others, the chief's nephews.
Dr Irwin's account gave me the idea for my story Savage Law, which appears in the anthology The Untamed West.