Down to Earth: Winning the Battle for Better Health Care

| April/May 2007

As the next presidential election draws near, politicians and the public are debating health care again. But a look at medical care in the not-so-distant past puts this issue in perspective: Medicine certainly has come a long way since Civil War times. Although that horrible war caused catastrophic losses of life for both sides, it also brought about significant advances in medical care. Experimentation with old and new treatment methods resulted in knowledge and understanding.

In 1860, physicians were not well trained; infection was an expected part of healing; and neither Band-Aids nor hypodermic needles were in standard use.Plants, however, played a prominent role in Civil War-era medicine. Believing that medicines would be in short supply, Confederate Surgeon General Samuel Preston Moore sent a proclamation to his medical officers to use the "indigenous botanical remedies of the South." He also commissioned Surgeon Major Francis P. Porcher to compile Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical and Agricultural, first published in 1863. This book provides a fascinating look at the medicinal plants of the time.

Soldiers wounded on the battlefield might have been treated with one or more of our most popular culinary herbs: Thyme, summer savory and sage all were used to clean wounds and aid healing. Onions and garlic, which have antibacterial properties, also were used to treat wounds and infections, as well as insect stings and boils. Salves and poultices of calendula might have been applied to the skin to treat inflammation.

Those who suffered from illness might have had cayenne pepper applied to their skin as a "rubefacient," intentionally raising blisters to "draw out" the cause of the illness. Cayenne (popularized by travel on the Santa Fe Trail during the 1820s to 1840s) was given orally with other medicines to speed their absorption, too.

To treat bronchitis, colds, diarrhea, fevers and headaches, 19th-century practitioners on and off the battlefield often used catnip.

If you had a stomachache, odds are you would have been treated with either peppermint or bee balm. Bee balm, widely grown as a garden plant today, also was valued for treating headaches and inducing sweating.

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