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Pioneer Medicine

Toward a Modern Medicine, 1830-1850

Dr. Uriah Upjohn, c.1865. P-652

The life of a Kalamazoo pioneer was not an easy one, even for those who possessed financial resources. The physical and emotional labor of struggling in a new, sometimes inhospitable environment took its toll on even the hardiest, most determined frontiersman. One’s health depended on a mixture of luck, chance and circumstance. Part of Kalamazoo’s rapid ascent as a prosperous and well organized village was the development of its healthcare infrastructure, comprised mostly of a handful of mobile physicians and their all important saddlebags.

In the 1830s, medical standards were hardly acknowledged, let alone guided the practices of doctors. The education of a doctor during this time period would have likely consisted of a “brief apprenticeship, superstition, old wives tales and practical experience.” (KG, 24 April 1949) Not every village could boast the presence of an educated doctor with a valid degree. Fortunately for county residents, both Dr. Nathan M. Thomas of Prairie Ronde, and Dr. David E. Brown of Schoolcraft, had earned medical degrees from reputable universities.

The first doctor who settled in Bronson was Jonathan G. Abbott, who settled here in 1831. Other notable men of medicine who practiced within the county included Doctors Isaac E. Lamborn, David E. Demming, Edwin Colt, Lewis Starkey, Uriah Upjohn, Reuben Barrett, George Browning, George W. Lyon, and George J. Longbottom. It was not uncommon for these men to travel long distances, first by horse and later by wagon, throughout the county to treat the ill and injured.

Unlike today, the doctors of the early years of Bronson, and later Kalamazoo, lived a hardscrabble life, rarely finding riches in their services. Therefore, many pioneer doctors served in other civic capacities, or found more financial stability in farming. Abbott served as Kalamazoo’s first postmaster. Nathan Thomas is widely credited for his anti-slavery politics and role in providing shelter to the enslaved traveling along the Underground Railroad circuit. Dr. George W. Lyon was known for his literary accomplishments.

The Saddlebag Era

Dr. Nathan Thomas’ saddlebag, c.1832-1845. Kalamazoo Valley Museum Collection

As the village of Kalamazoo grew so did the number of instances of disease and injury. By 1837, there were 1200 inhabitants. The prosperity and sustainability of the community relied heavily on the early doctors who treated those with any number of maladies. Physicians required an intrepid spirit and stout tenacity, for it was central to their vocation to traverse the most difficult of terrain, and endure the extremities of Midwestern winters and summers in order to treat a patient.

Doctors advertised their essential services in the local newspaper, and found a robust number of customers, with some able to pay for treatment while others were less financially secure. Absent the presence of a hospital, the saddlebag was the doctor’s office, and often included powders like “blue mass, rhubarb powder, ipecacuanha, tartar emetic, quinine flakes, Calomel, aloes, guiacum, senna leaves, mandrake, iodide, bromide, chlorate, acetrate, and nitrate of potash.” Also, there were the bottles of liquid remedies like “hartshorn, digitalis, veratrum viride, tinctures of cardamon, colchecium, lobelia, nux vomica, ferrum, arnica, gel semium, and capsicium.” Catheters and ‘twisters’ (for pulling teeth) were also common instruments found in the bag of doctors. (McGuineas)

These early Kalamazoo doctors were hardly infallible, sometimes employing outdated forms of diagnosis or treatment. A combination of learned know-how and common sense guided the pioneer physician’s decisions. Theories such as Phrenology and Phlebotomy (blood-letting) were still fashionable up to the 1840s, before being rejected by the medical establishment. It was not uncommon, for a patient to be misdiagnosed, or for the prescribed treatment to render the person worse off. It was a trial and error era for sure.

“There were, of course, no medical magazines to keep them up to date on new medicines and new surgical techniques, so what became commonly accepted among the doctors as good medical treatment went through quite an incubation period of trial and error. And then, often as not, in the period of a generation or so, the accepted method was thrown out the window.” (McGuineas, p.5)

Frontier Maladies

During the first half of the 19th century, as modern medicine began to evolve from the dimness of superstition and ignorance, there were no shortage of maladies whose impact on a person or group, could wreak havoc. One of the most common and destructive of these ills was malaria, or what pioneers often referred to as ague. The symptoms associated with the mosquito-born disease were chills, sweating, fever and aches. Doctors believed that malaria derived from swampy air, rather than the ubiquitous mosquito–a foe so bothersome that one could be stung hundreds of times in less than a minute.

“It was not an uncommon sight to see people driven from the streets by the stinging of these swarms. About the only remedy used was the smudge pot, but the smoke was about as irritating as the mosquitos themselves. Few people even guessed that it was the female mosquito that spread malaria throughout the town.” (McGuineas, p.19)

Only with the emergence of cold weather were residents spared the ill effects of the mosquito’s wrath. Doctors applied a handful of remedies, some connected to wild plants, bark and roots, in an attempt to counter the patient’s chills and sweating, but bedrest and endurance were often the best solutions. One of the most feared ailments during the 1830s was cholera, which could be spread easily and quickly if not treated properly through quarantining. Crackpot cures were a dime a dozen in those days, with unscrupulous doctors preying on the sick with unproven remedies.

Surgical practices at this time were crude, with doctors applying rather brutish techniques in order to remedy the situation. Pain was a given. “Ether and chloroform anesthesia were unknown, and antiseptics were crude ancestors of today’s safe drugs.” (McGuineas)

“Kalamazoo around 1840 had grown to 1400 people of which six or seven were doctors. Phrenology and Phlebotomy were only practices in outlying districts. The doctors in Kalamazoo were beginning to evolve into the well-trained technicians of today. It was a slow process and the transformation was painful, having many setbacks. But the important thing is that the nucleus of modern medicine started then; and what is more significant, the doctors of Kalamazoo played an important part in its growth.” (McGuineas, p.7)


Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, October 2023



Kalamazoo medicine to the Civil War 1830-1860

Roger McGuineas

H 610.9 M14


“County pioneers blessed with good medical care”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 April 1949, p.8

“The ‘medicine men’ of Kalamazoo County”

Encore Magazine, February 1984, p.11

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