Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Medicine on the frontier

Reading Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs by Wayne Bethard, I was struck less by the seemingly outrageous remedies used in frontier medicine -- things like gunpowder, manure and actual snake oil -- than by the many medicines that really worked and are still in use today. How did they discover the healing properties of things like cocoa butter, alum and slippery elm? How did someone learn to turn plants into medicines?

Bethard, a Texas pharmacist, uses his professional training to analyze frontier medicines, explain how they were prepared and describe how they worked or how they were supposed to work. If you want to know about  the history of castor oil or sarsaparilla or iodine, here is the place to look. Coca-Cola, Bethard writes, was first intended as medicine, to stop and prevent nausea. Water lilies were used to treat everything from sore throats to saddle sores. Nearly half of the book is a series of explanations of these and other frontier medicines.

Most of the rest of the book consists of stories about frontier medicine, such as one about a man who supposedly infected himself with a tapeworm before an international trip so that he could eat and drink anything without fear of becoming ill. Upon his return, he had the tapeworm removed. Another story tells of a woman who was pregnant for 80 years. The woman had suffered from recurring cramps throughout her life and had never been able to have children. An X-ray in 1979 revealed a calcified fetus in her womb, the result of her first sexual encounter as a girl in 1899.

Bethard knows his stuff and is an entertaining writer, yet somehow his beautifully illustrated book fails to be totally satisfying. It is more a collection of interesting facts and stories than a unified whole.

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