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BULLEThistory archive
History Archive Photo
© Courtesy Sharlot Hall Museum

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What the Doctors Ordered
With Mayo Clinic, Barrow Neurological Institute, et al. in our backyard, Arizona is a mecca for medical attention. Back in the Territorial days, however, the best a patient could hope for was a healthy dose of quinine, laudanum, chewing tobacco or even arsenic.

By Sally Benford

Tombstone In the mid- to late 19th century, cemeteries throughout the West held the graves of settlers, soldiers and pioneers who had died from almost anything but natural causes. Military battles, mining accidents, gunfights, bites and stings from poisonous reptiles and insects, and diseases such as cholera and malaria were a few of the dangers that plagued Territorial Arizona, and at the time, medical standards were lax to say the least.

Almost anyone could claim to be a doctor, so the Territory was filled with its share of quacks, snake-oil salesmen and "sawbones." Practicing medicine in the Wild West required courage and creativity — a military surgeon seldom traveled without his amputation kit, and dentists and doctors regularly prescribed such odd medicines as quinine, laudanum, chewing tobacco and even arsenic to "cure" their patients. They rode through rough country to mining camps, towns and ranches, dodging ambushes and attacks by outlaws and Indians alike. And many worked with extremely limited resources to raise the standard of care.

Some notable doctors started their medical careers at Arizona military posts. In 1876, Dr. Walter Reed served at Fort Lowell, and later, at Fort Apache. According to Dr. Robert Kravetz, author of Healthseekers in Arizona, Reed spent a year at a mosquito-infested post on Rillito Creek, studying problems created by the insects. "He recommended a later hour for reveille and noted that malaria patients were responding well to quinine." The opportunity for observation on the Arizona frontier served Reed well — he later proved that some illnesses, such as yellow fever, were mosquito-borne diseases.

Like Reed, Dr. George Goodfellow practiced in Arizona. During his time in Tombstone, he worked to improve medical practices. When a hospital of "the finest quality" opened in Tombstone in 1885, Goodfellow served as its director and instituted instrument sterilization practices. He also performed the first appendectomy in Arizona.

When it came to dentists, Doc Holliday may have been the most famous tooth-yanker in Arizona, even though he didn't practice his trade in the Territory. Some doctors acted as dentists, pulling teeth and prescribing medicines that contained alcohol, narcotics or a combination of both. Eventually, as technology advanced in the early 1900s, the number of dental practitioners increased, and modern offices included reclining chairs, a self-cleaning spittoon, dental instruments and an electric drill. An 1896 edition of the Arizona Gazette published a dentist's ad that offered silver fillings for $1.50, gold fillings for $2 and extractions for 50 cents — an amount that was marked down to 25 cents on Saturdays, which, even in those days, was a bargain.

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