Monday, April 11, 2022

Bonesetters and Doctors


      Aloes, frankincense, dragon’s blood, myrrh, sarcocolla, egg white and hair of hare, excluding myrrh.  Ibn al-Quff (1233–1286 AD)’s    (to help cure a broken bone)                        


Bonesetters and Doctors

                                                      By Julie Hanks, Ph.D aka Jesse J Elliot

             Before the practice of medicine became licensed and regulated, many 19th Century citizens had to rely on traditional health practitioners such as midwives, bonesetters, barbers, and blacksmiths. Though some of these providers were charlatans, most of the health care practitioners such as bonesetters and midwives were trained or apprenticed to those who knew and understood their field of medicine. A traditional bonesetter is a lay practitioner of joint manipulation. He or she is a practitioner who takes up the practice of healing without having had any formal training in accepted medical procedures. Whereas, physicians work to maintain, promote, and restore health by studying, diagnosing, and treating injuries and diseases

            Bonesetters traditionally passed their knowledge from father to son, sometimes daughters. They were the forerunners of orthopedic doctors and chiropractors. One family in early New England that practiced bonesetting was so effective, that it was written up in 1954 (Bulletin of the History of Medicine © 1954 The Johns Hopkins University Press), the “Bonesetting Sweets.”            Bonesetters relied on touch to determine the prognosis or extent of the damage. They would run their hands over the damaged area and determine how to manipulate the bones. Shoulders, knees, elbows, hips, etc. were diagnosed through touch and then pushed, pulled, placed, or manipulated.

            Bonesetting is nothing new as can be verified by the discovery of healed bones in prehistoric man. Bonesetters were adept at fixing bone fractures just by feeling the fracture and then assuring that the bone was reset and made stationary and immobile until healed. The broken limb could be pulled if necessary (traction) to enable the proper healing. That this practice continues through today is a good indication of its medical value.

            Some wonderful articles have been written on bone manipulation in the Paleolithic eras. One is by Peter A. Huijbregts PT, MSc, MHSc, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, FCAMT, in Pain Procedures in Clinical Practice (Third Edition), 2011.  Many of the bones in this period were set and healed completely—by touch. These discoveries are not just European finds, but can be found all over the world. Not only were bones set and healed, but in the Mayan ruins in Oaxca, medical schools for brain surgery were found. And in Asia and Africa, bonesetters date back to prehistory as well.


            By the 19th Century, trained doctors knew most of the names and functions of bones, muscles, nerves, etc. They were knowledgeable about the need to set the bone correctly, use traction if necessary, and immobilize the break until it healed. They were able to set a broken arm or leg, and often it healed. The problem remained, however, for compound fractures—infections.

            In the Civil War, doctors working on and off the battle fields were faced with the dilemma of mass infection in the soldiers whose bones were shattered or so badly fractured, that the inevitability of death by infection, gangrene, or blood poisoning forced the doctors to amputate. Some patients were fortunate enough to be sedated by morphine or ether, but that was not always the case, and instead of nurses handing doctors sterilized instruments as they do today, these nurses (most often males) were there to hold down the unfortunate patients.

            If the patient was lucky enough to have a simple fracture, the doctor would feel and set (or pull if necessary) the bone into place. Bedding or wood was wrapped around the wound and held together with ropes/ties with sticks holding the appendage immobile. Interestingly enough, though plaster of Paris (gypsum) was used in Europe in the early 1800s, it wasn’t used during the Civil War. However, by 1870, it was used regularly when available throughout the United States.

            If one had a broken bone and was away from medical care, the broken appendage was set and placed in a box frame of clay that would harden and be left on until the bone healed. If the wound was a simple fracture, this did the job though the patient was stuck with a heavy burden to wield. However, if not set correctly or the bone was broken in several places, the patient could die or end up a cripple with ongoing pain.

            Several years ago, I began having excruciating pain down my left side. I was diagnosed with sciatica by my primary physician, and it was confirmed when my ex-ray identified a slipped disc. I was given a set of exercises and pain pills. The problem became bearable, and it only came on sporadically.  Now, sciatica has come to stay. I am unable to walk any long distance or traverse any hills—up or down.  My neighbor recommended his chiropractor who does diagnosis and treatment “by feel.” Those bonesetters knew their business all right.

Wish me luck—I go there next Thursday.











  1. Julie Hanks, Ph.D,

    Wishing you much luck with medical issues.

    I have suffered many broken bones over the years. I have metal all over my body. The worst is hardware and seven screws in an ankle.

    When I broke my ankle my foot went backwards. A real mess that took a long time to surgery and a permanent fix.

    Setting bones is sometimes not enough. Sometimes surgery and stainless steel hardware are needed.

    What do you think, Dr. Keith Souter? The Doc knows all as Western Fictioneers resident medical physician. Any comments?

    Charlie Steel

    1. OW! I feel your pain. I too am part metal: CW dancing and soccer took my knees out several times, and my shoulders have been replaced. Hope you're done with broken bones, Charlie, they're even nastier with age. J

  2. I was remiss, your article does point out that medical knowledge and setting of bones has a very long history indeed. Thank you.

  3. Fascinating. Wishing you well with the 'bonesetter' and that you get relief. It's tough when you can't get around. Doris