Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Western Wednesday: Medicine in the Olden Days

Western Wednesday: Medicine in the Olden Days 

Photo: Pixabay/Steve Buissinne
Got a headache? Grab some aspirin or other pain reliever. How about bronchitis or strep throat? The doctor will give you a prescription for an antibiotic. But it hasn’t been that long since an infection, even a minor one, could conceivably kill its victim. Penicillin was accidentally discovered in 1928, but it would be nearly twenty years before the drug was fully developed and available on a wide scale (thanks mostly to the need generated by WWII). 

So what did folks do before modern drugs? 

Medicine in the 1700s: 
  • Headaches, dropsy (swelling), and stomach pains: teas infused with lavender, rosemary, wormwood, sage, foxglove, and mint. 
  • Fever: Wine “sharpened with lemon juice” or water gruel, orange whey, or weak chamomile tea 
  • Bleeding was also a popular “cure” that often created more problems than it solved!

  • Itchy skin and/or infection prevention: Camphor 
  • Diarrhea: Opium. 
  • Arthritis: Apple pectin mixed into juice. 
  • Insect stings: Honey 
  • Burns: Cloths soaked in tea
  • Indigestion: baking soda solution
  • Coughs (and many other ills): Castor oil 
  • Sore throat: Saltwater gargle (still used today!) 
Pixabay/Terri Cnudde
Then there were solutions for “female problems” such as motherwort tea to “calm the nerves.” Painful menstruation was treated with a tea made from red raspberry leaves. This was also thought to cure infertility. Labor pains were treated with blue cohosh and menopause with black cohosh. Fainting spells were treated with a tablespoon of vinegar. Calendula tea was used to cure bladder infections, and chamomile tea was used as a cure-all for everything from menopause to insomnia. 

A frightening “cure” that was part of medicine for nearly five hundred years was mercury. Thought to rejuvenate the body, it was most popular for sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis. Unfortunately, it eventually caused deformities before killing the patient. 

Another common remedy was a mustard poultice. Used for chronic aches and pains as well as to ease chest congestion, the poultice (a soft moist mass) was made from mustard seed powder spread inside a protective dressing. The key was not to leave it in place for too long because it could cause first-degree burns! The vapor could cause nausea. Other poultices were created with dried crumbled bread mixed with sweet milk. Sometimes egg whites, crushed boiled onions, cornmeal or wheat bran were added. 

The wife/mother was typically responsible for the health of the family, and many eventually learned the healing properties of the various herbs native to their location. It is debatable whether the home herb garden or vegetable garden was more important. I can’t imagine having to crush, cook, or infuse my medicine all the while wondering if it would work. 


She’s running for her life. He needs a trophy wife. They didn’t count on falling in love. 

Ellie Wagner is fine being a spinster school teacher. Then she witnesses a bank hold up and can identify the bandits. Fellow robbery victim Milly Crenshaw happens to run the Westward Home & Hearts Matrimonial Agency so she arranges for Ellie to head West as a mail-order bride. But her groom only wants a business arrangement. Can she survive a loveless marriage? 

Banker Julian Sheffield is more comfortable with numbers than with people, but he’s done well for himself. Then the bank president tells him that in order to advance further he must marry in six weeks’ time. The candid, unsophisticated woman sent by the agency is nothing like he expected, but time is running out. When her past comes calling, does he have what it takes to ensure their future?


  1. Oh, Linda, I KNOW. I have a huge cholera epidemic in my first book and they were so helpless. Glad to live in 2022, even though there are other reasons it's not so fun!

  2. I'm always to see ads from the last century advocating the medicinal value of cocaine, or cigarettes to soothe your throat.