Thursday, October 25, 2018

What Did a Frontier Doctor Carry in his Doctor’s Bag?

Last month, I told you that I’m looking forward to the publication of my first novel-length story, Sand Creek Serenade (coming March 14, 2019)—a romance between a female doctor and a Cheyenne brave in 1864 Colorado Territory. This month, I wanted to share with you the detail about a few specific tools and instruments a doctor in 1864 might have carried in his (or in this case, HER) doctor bag. 

In Sand Creek Serenade, my female doctor—Sadie Hoppner—has a good set of medical instruments, some inherited from her father who passed away, as well as various gifts he’d bought her as she worked to complete her apprenticeship and become a full-fledged doctor herself. I focused specifically on two of those instruments in the story. What were they? Let’s take a look:

The Stethoscope

A humorous picture of a doctor using immediate auscultation to listen to the heart/lungs of a patient.
Prior to the early 1800s, there weren’t stethoscopes. The method in which a doctor would hear the sounds inside the chest—be it breath sounds or the pitter-pat of a patient’s heart, was to put his ear to the patient’s chest and listen carefully. Also known as immediate auscultation. Let’s all say it together—AWKWARD! Not only was that uncomfortable for all involved, but the sounds were not amplified in the least, which made it easy to miss something in diagnosing an illness.

Monaural stethoscopes
A doctor by the name of Rene Laennac developed the monaural stethoscope in 1816. This was a single stiff tube with a small bell on one end and a larger cone or bell on the other. The doctor would place the small end against the patient’s chest and his ear against the larger end. This would amplify the sound andput a little distance between the doctor and his patient. However, the monaural (single ear) stethoscope eventually got replaced with a binaural (double ear) version. The binaural version is the forerunner to the stethoscopes of today, having the ear pieces that go in each ear, flexible tubing that led to a single bell. This version was invented in 1856 in America, and some binaural stethoscopes even had interchangeable bells for different uses.
A binaural Stethoscope

In Sand Creek Serenade, Sadie owns a binaural stethoscope, and it makes for a fun scene the first time the hero, Five Kills hears his heart beat through it!

The Syringe

We take syringes for granted today. They are used for vaccinations against diseases, for heavy loads of antibiotics when someone grows ill, for the delivery of insulin to the diabetic—and many other (legal and illegal) uses. But at what point were syringes created? That’s hard to say. The basic principle of a plunger inside of a tube, able to draw liquid/gas up into the tube—or expel the liquid/gas from the tube were in use for a verylong time before the hypodermic syringe was introduced into American medical practice.

It was in 1853 that Dr. Alexander Wood created the first syringe with a hollow needle. From the beginning, Dr. Wood created the hypodermic syringe for the delivery of morphia (later renamed morphine), but he also recognized that the uses could be endless for the instrument. As the Civil War began and wounded soldiers needed pain medication, syringes became important in administering morphine. However, just as they once thought “laudable pus” was a sign of healing—so they also thought nothing of using the same syringe and needle on many patients without sterilization. There are various articles out there that talk about Confederate soldiers receiving a Smallpox vaccination as they entered the Confederate army, only to develop infection at the injection site. I cringe to think of it!
Early examples of hypodermic syringes
After the Civil War’s end, many former soldiers continued to use morphine due to the addiction they’d developed after their injuries. Morphine use became more widespread when the general population began to use it for the treatment of all manner of illnesses and injuries—everything from sunstroke to syphilis. (Again, I cringe!) In fact, the hypodermic syringe and needles became so popular that they were even sold in mail-order catalogs to the general public. 

Late in Sand Creek Serenade, Sadie experiments with a newish treatment using her syringe and ends up saving a life. 

These are the two main doctor’s instruments that are spoken of in my novel, but other things a doctor might have carried in his bag would be things like bandages, scissors for cutting bandages or human tissue, a variety of scalpels, suturing needles and various types of threads, a plexor (the small hammer with the rubber head used to test reflexes or test the percussive quality of the chest and abdomen), a tongue depressor (we’re not talking a large wooden disposable popsicle stick here. They used the same one over and over with all their patients—eww!), forceps in a variety of shapes and sizes, and probably a tourniquet to stop bleeding. In addition, they might have medications—either man-made or herbal/holistic remedies.

In addition to these every-day items, the doctors had more specialized kits of tools they could grab for specific circumstances—an obstetrics kit for delivering babies, an amputation kit for removing unsalvageable limbs (shudder!), and others. 

It’s your turn: Have you ever thought about the medical tools that a frontier doctor might have had on hand? Did any of these I mentioned surprise you? If so, for what reason?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

What kind of woman would answer an advertisement and marry a stranger?

Escape into the history of the American West along with nine couples whose relationships begin with advertisements for mail-order brides. Placing their dreams for new beginnings in the hands of a stranger, will each bride be disappointed, or will some find true love?

The Brigand and the Bride by Jennifer Uhlarik
1876, Arizona
Jolie Hilliard weds a stranger to flee her outlaw family but discovers her groom is an escaped prisoner. Will she ever find happiness on the right side of the law?


  1. I think I am surprised that syringes were around so early. This was very interesting! Thanks for the post!

    1. I was also surprised to realize about the syringes, Connie. Of course, the gauge of the needle was MUCH larger than what we have today.

  2. Your post reminded me that we take so very much for granted these days. My grandfather was born in 1865, so all those "old time" practices would have affected his life. That reminds me that it wasn't really that long ago that medicine did many things that today we would think of as quackery. How blessed we are to live in 2018!

    1. Amen, Stephanie! I couldn't agree more. I've got any number of books on my research book shelves that deal with medical practices at different periods in history. Oh goodness--the things they thought! At one point, pus was thought to be a sign of healing. Bleeding a person would help to heal them. I could go on, but i won't! LOL There were some absolutely crazy thoughts, and I'm so glad we don't live that way now.

  3. The only thing that surprised me was the use of the syringe over and over without sterilizing it.

    1. I know it sounds crazy with what we know today, but germ theory really didn't take hold until after the Civil War. Even though the theory was known about well beforehand, people within the medical field felt that it was "bad air" (miasma) that created infection and caused death. Oh, if only they had accepted germ theory earlier!

  4. I truly enjoyed learning about the contents of the doctor's bag. Very interesting!