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Doctors of the American Frontier

From: The Hospitalist, August 2006

by VAC-therapy and recently OASIS are promising. John Bois, BA

Surgeon George Miller Sternberg
Surgeon George Miller Sternberg

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

When the battle concluded and the soldiers returned to camp, the physicians began to wage a fierce war with disease. Among the plagues that stalked the camps: cholera, scurvy, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. On one occasion in 1874 cholera struck in the heat of the summer at Fort Riley in Kansas. The pestilence devastated the fort by swiftly taking the lives of dozens of soldiers and compelling a hundred more to desert the fort in fear. One ignorant physician attempted in vain to combat the disease by “burning barrels of pine tar beneath the open windows of the fort hospital.”1

Eventually, Dr. Sternberg conquered the outbreak by implementing a strict disinfection and isolation campaign. In the battle against scurvy, military physicians noted that the typical diet of “meat, white bread, soda biscuits, syrup, lard, and black coffee” was insufficient and often attempted to plant and harvest their own supply of vegetables to treat the vitamin C-deficient soldiers.1

The frontier physician’s duties often expanded outside of the realms of medicine because “by order of the Secretary of War they also studied weather, geography, plants, fauna, Indian customs, and antiquities.”1 In fulfilling these duties, physicians made remarkable contributions to the preservation of the history of the American West, such as Dr. James Kimball’s purchase of the autobiography of Sitting Bull. Indeed, life as a military physician on the American frontier tested the courage, durability, and ingenuity of the early American doctor. TH

John Bois is a second-year medical student at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn.


  1. Dunlop R. Doctors of the American Frontier. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company; 1965: 73.

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