Doctors of the American Frontier

Discussions of the mid-19th century American physician often conjure up images of the surgeons of the Civil War who tirelessly plied their trade during battle: “During the rest of the night and early morning, he [amputated] arms below the elbow and legs below the knee in less than five minutes. The deep incision … the sweeping cut … pull back the soft parts to expose the bone … saw swiftly.”1

However, in the same period but some thousand miles west, frontier physicians faced similar battle wounds sustained in campaigns against American Indians, as well as a myriad of other duties. Some frontier physicians met these challenges with remarkable ingenuity, while others resorted to treatments later deemed quackery. They often practiced alone in the wilderness without a hospital or colleagues for support.

Surgeon George Miller Sternberg and an aide crawled out onto the battlefield looking for the wounded. They crept so close to the enemy that they could hear the Indians talking.

The first and most obvious task of a military physician on the frontier was to attend to soldiers wounded during battle. The first hurdle was reaching the soldier. In 1874, Surgeon George Miller Sternberg faced daunting challenges in aiding seriously wounded soldiers of General Oliver Otis Howard’s company after a melee with Chief Joseph’s Nez Percé tribe. As dark settled across Clearwater River, Idaho, “Surgeon George Miller Sternberg and an aide crawled out onto the battlefield looking for the wounded. They crept so close to the enemy that they could hear the Indians talking.”1 Dr. Sternberg worked tirelessly throughout the night ligating pulsing arteries and soothing the suffering soldiers with whatever means he had, from opium balls to whiskey. During the course of the evening, an American Indian sentinel spotted Dr. Sternberg’s lantern and shot it out, forcing Dr. Sternberg to continue his treatment in darkness.

In other conflicts, the frontier physician often found himself an active participant in a battle. In the Battle of the Lava Beds fought in Oregon in 1873, Dr. George Martin Kober received a gunshot wound in the arm during the course of the battle. Despite his wound he continued to “treat the wounded before he allowed Dr. Skinner to come to his relief.”1

In the Battle of Bates Creek, fought in the summer of 1874, Dr. Thomas Maghee “was the object of the direct fire of an Indian. Until, laying down his instruments for a moment, he took his carbine and killed the Indian and then returned quietly to his work.”1

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