2300 Pasadena Drive
Austin, Texas 78757
The training of doctors in Texas varied.
Some were outright quacks who simply
bestowed the title of "doctor" upon themselves.
Many had had brief apprenticeships
with older doctors. And a few were
highly trained physicians like Ashbel
Smith. With a medical degree from Yale,
a year's training in surgery in Paris under
the outstanding surgeons of the day, and
experience in cholera and yellow fever
epidemics, Smith achieved a reputation
that caused him to be called upon for his
medical services even after he officially
gave up his practice to devote his time to
planting and political and educational
Nevertheless, no matter how well intentioned
and well trained the nineteenth
century physician, he was handicapped
by the limitations of medical
knowledge of his item. Treatment by
amateurs and professionals alike was
often heroic and potentially more dangerous
to the patient than the disease. Harsh
emetics, purgatives, and bloodletting
were the order of the day (known as the
"puke, purge, and blood" regimen.) Quinine,
calomel, blue mass pills, Epsom
salts, and castor oil were the doctor's favorite
weapons against disease. Blistering
with hot poultices and plasters was also a
The doctor's chief instrument of torture
was his scarificator, with which he practiced
"theraputic vampirism." The scarificator
was a small box containing ten to
twelve lancets or blades cocked with a
spring. When the spring was tripped, the
blades punctured the skin and pierced a
vein, usually just above the bend of the
elbow. A glass cup with a bulb was used to
suck out the blood.
In dry cupping, a heated glass was
placed on the patient's skin to create a
vacuum and draw blood to the surface.
Leeches were also used for bleeding. After
the patient's skin was moistened with a
little milk, the leech was placed on the
skin until it attached itself. When the
leech had sucked the desired amount of
blood, it was removed and a bandage applied
to stop the bleeding.
Mrs. Matilda Houstoun, an early observer
of the Texas scene, noted in 1844
that almost any ship coming into Galveston
brought "leeches by thousands,
quinine by hogshead, and calomel by
lots; to say nothing of demijohns of castor
Texas newspapers advertised patent
medicines promising to cure everything
from baldness to cancer. Druggist Benjamin
Franklin Rucker in Washington
was famous for his tonics, especially his
Brazos Tonic and Alternative, which he
advertised as a "certain cure for chronic
ague, associated with enlargements of
spleen and liver and digestive ills."
More extravagant claims were made for
other medications. Vandeveer's Medicated
Gin was billed as a "revivifyer of
the constitution" and "a general remedy
for all the ills of life." Radway's R.R.R.
(Ready Relief, Regulating Pills, and Renovating
Resolvent) promised that there
was no disease, plague or pestilence, pain
or ache, however malignant, violent or
destructive that would not be "arrested
and exterminated" by its use. Plantation
families, who often did their shopping by
mail order, could order from a catalogue
published by J. Wright and Company,
titled "Genuine and Popular Family
Eye specialists advertised in papers and
in the Texas Almanac, a popular journal
with planters. From New Orleans, a Dr.
Beard's Eye Infirmary advertised that it
had wards devoted to the treatment of
slaves with eye affliction and listed its fees
Whites, from $2 to $5 per day; Negroes,
$1 per day.
Operations charged extra.
The popularity that some patent medicines
attained, it must be suspected, was
because they contained generous amounts
of alcohol or opium. They were rather expensive
and of questionable medicinal
value. Most plantation residents put
more faith in the home remedies prepared
by their own white mistresses and black
mammies from herbs, barks, roots, leaves,
berries, weeds, and other natural ingredients.
Mary Austin Holley, Stephen F.
Austin's cousin, noticed that Texas
abounded in valuable medicinal herbs
Medicinal teas were made from many
substances. Watermelon tea and catnip
tea were given to babies to soothe them.
Sage tea was used for fevers and chills as
was sassafras tea, which was also drunk to
"purify" the blood. Butterfly weed tea was
used for pleurisy. Pepper tea (pepper in
boiled milk) and corn shucks tea were favorite
home remedies for various ailments.
Peppermint tea was used for the
relief of indigestion. Continued page 41
ciervingcexas since 1967
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 4, Number 3, Winter 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45440/. Accessed August 28, 2015.