When the soldiers of the Lewis and Clark expedition were returning from the Pacific Northwest, they started running out of goods to trade for food.
Then they ran into the Nez Perce tribe, whose members were having problems with sore eyes because of the dusty climate. In exchange for food, the explorers treated the Nez Perce with eye wash they got in Philadelphia.
“The fame of their medical skills spread through the countryside, and people came flooding in from all over,” said Gary Moulton, a University of Nebraska professor who edited a 13-volume edition of the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
The expedition was as much of a medical marvel as it was a remarkable Army campaign, according to a new museum exhibition at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The exhibition, called “Only One Man Died: Medical Adventures on the Lewis & Clark Trail,” opened last month and is scheduled to remain on display through 2006.
Lewis knew enough about practical medicine to take care of his men almost as well as a physician of the time did, museum director Gretchen Worden said.
“The whole expedition could have been a horrible failure if they didn’t have this basic medical knowledge,” Worden said of the campaign that affected the young republic’s westward expansion. “It’s always there. It’s what kept them going. And yet, because people regard medicine as somewhat esoteric and only understood by doctors, that aspect of it is usually just a small part of [stories about] the expedition.”
Lewis’ basic medical knowledge wasn’t unusual for 1803, when the mission began, Worden said. Although today’s doctors have a great deal of knowledge that the public lacks, that wasn’t true 200 years ago, she said. That was partly because science hadn’t advanced enough then to make medicine esoteric, and partly because ordinary people had to know enough about medicine to take care of their families and farm animals, she said.
“They knew that if they did not stay healthy, they were not going to make it,” Worden said.
The man who died on the expedition was Sgt. Charles Floyd. Dr. Allen R. Myers, immediate past president of the college, said he believes that Floyd died from appendicitis.
“There is some dispute about that, but the present lore is that he died of a ruptured appendix, which would’ve been impossible to treat at the time,” Myers said. Even primitive anesthesia like ether did not exist 200 years ago, severely limiting surgery by even the most talented doctors in major cities.
The most advanced medicine performed then was done by doctors such as Benjamin Rush, a founder of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1787. The college does not offer degrees but provides health education to the community, continuing education for doctors and research facilities for students.