State historian Marshall Trimble on the standard practices of frontier doctors

Practicing MedicineDr. George Goodfellow 1

State historian Marshall Trimble on the standard practices of frontier doctors.

The frontier was a great place for a doctor to start a practice. The word “practicing” when it came to medicine in territorial Arizona could well be interpreted literally. And, a license to practice wasn’t required until 1900, therefore anyone could hang out a shingle and start practicing. Folks were pretty tolerant as long as the patient recovered and many did in spite of the treatment.

When it came to health care, folks living on the frontier led a hardscrabble life. Unlike what we’re used to seeing in movies, they were often wan with fever, gaunt, scrawny, and peaked. Their children were sick and fretful. Dental care was nonexistent and they dwelled in primitive surroundings with lice, fleas, and bedbugs. It was well into the 20th century before men used any kind of deodorant and not until the late 1800s before toilet paper came on the market. Shampoo didn’t come into use until the 1920s and soap was very hard on a woman’s hair so they only washed their tresses once a month.

They settled close to streams, which meant having to deal with flies and gnats by day and mosquitoes by night. In public places like saloons and restaurants people used common towels.

Vegetables were scarce. Families ate by common platter and drank from common tin cup. Ailments like indigestion and dysentery were common.

Epidemics could be devastating. In 1888, an outbreak of Diphtheria killed 40 children in the small Arizona community of St. Johns.

Doctors treated all kinds of ailments including broken limbs, gunshot and stab wounds, trees, logs, rocks, wagons, and horse accidents, rabies, snakebites, and scorpion stings to gunshot wounds, accidental and otherwise. Accidents involving explosives, wagons, and horses were likely the most common.

They delivered babies, fought smallpox, pneumonia, and diphtheria. Cures were blunt. One wrote he “slit the throat of the child choking with diphtheria, opening the windpipe. It was kept it open with fishhooks.

The most popular painkillers were morphine, opium, and laudanum, which could be purchased over the counter at any drugstore. Laudanum was the most common form for the ingestion of opium. It was regarded as the panacea for all that ails you. Made from a tincture of opium and alcohol it could be flavored with vanilla, cherry, orange, lemon, or almond and could be packed in a bottle and drank to kill the pain of everything from snake bite and gunshot wounds to migraines, menstrual cramps, toothache, venereal disease, worms, and diarrhea.

Most of the time, surgery was performed at the scene of the accident. There was total lack of cleanliness, due mostly to the lack of knowledge. Little was known about germs. Carbolic acid was usually the sterilizer. But, anesthetics and sterilization were rare or nonexistent. One told of operating while sitting on a tree stump while his patient was sprawled over a whiskey barrel. One hand cut, the other shooed away the flies. Another used his 200-pound office boy to sit on the patient’s head to keep him still during the surgery.

Back in 1888, Joe Phy and Pete Gabriel, a couple of gunfighters who were personal and professional rivals had a barroom shootout in the town of Florence. When the gun smoke cleared Joe had taken two bullets and Pete was shot three times. The local doctor, William Harvey, a friend of Joe’s refused to treat Gabriel, who recovered from his wounds while the doctor’s patient, Joe died.

Living in territorial Arizona kept doctors busy. Spirited horses were a status symbol to the devil-may-care cowboys. Blasting caps were left lying around mines just waiting for some child to pick up. Stagecoaches and wagons rolled down steep embankments. Diseases like small pox and diphtheria could ravage a community. Working conditions for doctors left a lot to be desired. There were advantages, too. They were far from the critical eye of medical boards and professional critics. This allowed them to attempt new surgical procedures without fear of censure.

Dr. George Goodfellow of Tombstone was one of Arizona’s most brilliant and innovative physicians. He performed the first perineal prostectomy in medical history and the first appendectomy in Arizona. He even performed plastic surgery on an accident victim. The subjects of his 13 published articles in medical journals ranged from malaria to gila monster bites. He pioneered the outdoor treatment for tuberculosis and was a leading expert on gunshot wounds. Doc could usually be found in his “other” office, the Crystal Palace Saloon promoting some sporting event.

During his illustrious career Doc Goodfellow drove a steam locomotive hell-for-leather 70 miles in a rush to the aid of a stricken colleague in Tucson who’d been mortally wounded in a gunfight with his ex-wife’s lawyer; he bravely entered mines during a disaster; rode on the campaign trail against Geronimo; aided the victims of the 1887 earthquake in Sonora; and negotiated the final surrender of Spanish forces in Cuba in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Doc Goodfellow is best remembered, however, for an 1884 coronary report in Tombstone. During the Christmas season of 1883 five desperados robbed the Goldwater-Castenada store in Bisbee. During the heist four people including a woman were shot and killed. Lawmen eventually captured the five and all were sentenced to hang at the county seat in Tombstone. Another man, John Heath, was charged with planning the robbery and because he didn’t participate in the robbery, demanded a separate trial. John received a sentence in the territorial prison at Yuma, something that incurred the wrath of locals.

On the evening of Feb. 22, 1884, a band of masked vigilantes stormed the Tombstone jail, took John out and strung him up to a telephone pole on Toughnut Street. It was Tombstone’s only lynching. Lynching is illegal regardless of whether the rascal deserved it or not and county coroner Doc Goodfellow was called upon to render a verdict. It was rumored that a number of the vigilantes were friends of Doc Goodfellow and some whispered Doc was there himself. Regardless, the coroner was obligated to render a decision. It would require the wisdom of Solomon to hand down a verdict that would satisfy the citizens of Cochise County and Doc Goodfellow proved up to the task. He ruled that John came to his end from shortage of breathing while at a high altitude.



Frontier Meds

Doctors weren’t always available to treat ailments on the frontier. Therefore each home was a veritable drug store. Medicine shelves were stocked with various remedies and concoctions. Some folk medicine cures were unusual and if the patient recovered it was assumed that credit was due to the treatment. At social gatherings the subject always got around to the treatment of some illness or injury. The following are some examples:


Asthma – keep stray cats in the house and by the time five have caught it you will be cured.

Rope burns – wash your hands in cowboy urine.

Cramps – turn your shoes upside down under the bed.

Warts – wet your hand then cover it with salt and let a mule lick it.

Chapped lips – apply cow manure. (chapped lips are caused by licking and cow manure will discourage lip licking.)

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