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Gold Rush Medicine

A lone miner in the rugged gold fields of Placer County conjures imagery of dangers like snake bites, animal attacks, and rock falls. Yet, the primary dangers to most miners were a lack of adequate medical care for common illnesses, and the toxic treatments sold to cure them.

Health and the Gold Rush

Moving west was hard. The three primary routes to California all posed a risk of disease or injury. The quickest and most expensive route was through the Isthmus of Panama, where travelers were exposed to malaria and yellow fever.

A ship around Cape Horn offered unsanitary conditions, spoiled food, and the possibility of scurvy.

The overland trail promised innumerable and unanticipated dangers along the 2,000-mile route. Ordinary injuries and illnesses could easily lead to death.

On each route, individuals faced the ever-present danger of cholera, which struck quickly and indiscriminately.

Once miners reached San Francisco, illnesses often lingered. These diseases also wreaked havoc on the well-established Native American populations on the West coast.

Over half the native population in Northern California was killed during the Gold Rush. Murder and displacement were the primary factors, but exposure to cholera, typhoid, measles, smallpox, whooping cough, and venereal diseases devastated tribes.

Brutal summer heat, freezing winters, and poor working conditions along steep ravines or sandy banks caused many injuries in the gold fields.

“Twenty-six years old – Feel I am getting old very fast.” -Stephen Wing, June 18, 1854

Chronic dysentery and diarrhea were widespread in mining camps due to unsanitary conditions and poor nutrition. Hard physical labor in cold river water chafed skin, strained muscles, and caused swelling. Wounds often became infected. Difficult terrain could lead to falls and high water could cause accidental drownings.

Some historians have estimated the death rate for miners between 10-15% where the remote nature of mining camps made obtaining medical assistance, if any was nearby, slow.

The Emergence of the American Medical Field

The Gold Rush occurred during an interesting time in American medical history. After 1812, an abundance of proprietary medical schools formed, and offered students a medical license after a short lecture course. These schools were in competition with well-established, often European based, medical universities that were centered on scientific, anatomical, and practical studies.

There was little oversight and no federal registration for physicians. In 1847, American Medical Association was formed to help regulate and advance this growing field.

Physicians had a clear understanding of anatomy, and many were making strides in the study of pathology. But there was still no understanding of germs, viruses, biochemistry, or endocrinology.

Doctors were often left to provide ineffective treatments based on the Hippocratic method of balancing the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

Common treatments included bloodletting, purgatives, emetics, quinine for malaria, mercury for syphilis, and opiates for a host of ailments. All of which have their own unpleasant side effects.

Regulation was expanding, but it was still easy for anyone with an inclination to practice (or make money) to hang a “shingle” and proclaim themselves a doctor. These “quacks” ranged from individuals who had been apprenticed, read a book, taken an interest, or wanted to sell patent medicines.

Patent Medicines

Patent medicine was the primary form of care for sick and injured miners. Originally, patent medicines were created with ingredients that were granted government protection for exclusivity. However, most medicines available in the gold fields had no real patents or regulations and were sold by merchants, post offices, tailors, and traveling salesmen.

These patent medicines made fraudulent claims about their ability to cure illnesses. Most started with a high alcohol base and were fortified with morphine, cocaine, or opium.

The Placer Herald published ads for a variety of these patent medicines during the Gold Rush.

Placer Herald 1861

One of the earliest medicines found in the Placer Herald was “Mexican Mustang Liniment,” advertised from 1854 to 1912. Manufactured in St. Louis, the liniment was an external remedy for both “man or beast.” Those who bought it received a mix of petroleum (crude oil), olive oil, and ammonia.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was extremely popular and advertised in Auburn for over forty years. The syrup was marketed to ease teething, regulate the bowels, and give rest and relief to both mothers and infants.

Unfortunately, the “perfectly safe” syrup’s primary ingredients were morphine and alcohol, with approximately 65 mg of morphine per fluid ounce. This led to death and opiate addiction in countless children.

Traditional Chinese medicine, including herbalism, was also brought to the gold fields by Chinese immigrants.

These treatments were used and sold by merchants in Chinatowns in communities like Auburn, Dutch Flat, and Newcastle.

Placer County began developing systematic medical care early. In 1852, Dr. Weeks, “Physician and Surgeon” was operating out of the Miners’ Drug Store in Auburn.

Placer Herald 1852

There were also two dentists, Doctor Traphagen and Dr. Hoy, advertising their services at the end of 1852.

Placer Herald 1852

A year later, two physicians were on the County payroll and residents were raising money to build a hospital for the “indigent sick.” This hospital, the first in Auburn, was completed in 1855, and received its first addition in 1863.

Placer Herald 1855

While these developments improved the health and mortality of local citizens, during the brief period of the California Gold Rush, from roughly 1848 to 1855, the wide variety of “nostrums” was a more likely candidate for the ailing miner.

To learn more about gold rush medicine and come face to face with leeches, nostrums, and fleams, visit Auburn's Gold Rush Museum.