Oregon Trails: Healthcare in the 1800s

By Ron Brown

CAVE JUNCTON, Ore. — Many of us look back at the past with wistful nostalgia, thinking of the “good old days.” One thing that wasn’t always so good was the quality of health care and the constant danger of plagues and epidemics.

One of the first doctors in Southern Oregon was Daniel Sherman Holton, who came to the mining town of Waldo in 1856. Within two years he became one of the founders of the new county seat of Kerbyville.

“He, had served in the Mexican war in the 1840’s, the Rogue Indian wars in the 1850’s, and the Civil War in the 1860’s. So he saw quite a bit of action as well has his medical kit which we have on display at the museum,” explains Kerbyville Museum Historian Dennis Strayer.

In a day when there were no antibiotics, few pain killers other than opium and alcohol, even a highly trained doctor like dr. Holton had little to help him deal with the diseases, epidemics and injuries that raged then, other than a small kit of simple saws, clamps, probes and pliers. Doctor Holton served the residents of Josephine County for 30 years, and even was a member of the state legislature. He was joined shortly after his arrival by a short-stature Englishman physician trained in San Francisco, doctor James Spence. Like Dr. Holton, Dr. Spence did about everything when a doctor was needed, in addition to farming.

“They covered a large area and, and out to the ranches to help wherever they could, and that was a real challenging time period for anybody who was a doctor,” explains Strayer. “Just simply trying to get around, was a real challenge. But again, they persevered.”

A look around the old cemeteries in our area give an indication of some of the problems early doctors faced. Serious disease like diphtheria took many people victim, especially small children, despite the best efforts of the doctors of the time. One of the biggest challenges came in the summer of 1883 when a diphtheria epidemic swept across much of southern Oregon, killing hundreds of people, old and young.

While he was out treating other people, Dr. Spence’s own two small daughters fell ill and died of diphtheria. Their graves are on the old Spence farm property. The epitaph reflects the pain they must have felt: ‘I take these little ones,’ he said, ‘and fold them to my breast. In my arms they shall ever be, and god will give them rest.’

“A good-hearted neighbor might come over and try to help and they themselves would catch the fever, and so again, it was a very scary time, and people tended to, stay away from people who were known to be exposed to the fever because once you got it, it was really pretty hard to overcome it,” Strayer says.

Much of our impression of what the old country doctor was like comes from pictures like the nostalgic painting by Norman Rockwell or from movies and television, like Doc Adams of the old Gunsmoke Series.

In last half of the 19th century, major changes began to raise the quality of medical care. Hospitals starting being built and the state of Oregon began licensing physicians. Old clippings show there was good cause for standardizing care. This story from Canyonville tells of a woman given a medication that made her very ill. When the doctor took the same medicine to prove it was okay, he died. Shortly afterward, she too passed away.

In 1906, the pure food and drug act began to curb the abuses of patent medicines. And the development of antibiotics, aspirin and improved public health practices slowly turned the tide against the epidemics of the past by the mid-20th century.

According to Historian Kay Atwood, the Southern Oregon Medical Society was the first regional medical society in Oregon. It was created in 1892, and helped identify more qualified physicians, and gradually establish a bond of trust with local residents. That led to the creation of hospitals and clinics and Southern Oregon’s reputation now as a major medical center on the West Coast.