Frontier medicine is a broad term that is applied to various medical treatments and techniques that were commonly employed in any geographical location identified as a frontier. The term is most often applied to the work of doctors who labored along the expanding Western frontier in the United States during the middle to late 19th century. Often, doctors who practiced various forms of frontier medicine also practiced another vocation at the same time, such as farming.
For the most part, practitioners of frontier medicine were called in when home remedies or the services of other health workers such as midwives proved to be insufficient. Some of the more common examples of frontier family medicine would include setting and applying splints to broken bones, administering various treatments to help lower fevers or minimize swelling, and in many cases help a family accept the impending death of a loved one. Among the best of these frontier doctors, a sense of compassion for patients was often one of the more powerful treatments that were available.
Frontier internal medicine was also practiced by these doctors who settled in new towns and communities. While invasive surgical techniques were not utilized often, doctors would sometimes be called upon to remove bullets and bind up the wounds or attempt to remove a growth found under the skin. In situations where a limb was crushed, frontier doctors would often use alcohol to partially ease the pain of the patient, then proceed to remove the useless limb. Because a saw was often used for this function, the doctors were sometimes referred to as “sawbones.”
The practice of frontier medicine was not a particularly lucrative endeavor. Patients sometimes paid with produce, eggs, or chickens rather than money. The doctor was on call around the clock and would often be summoned in the middle of the night, during severe rainstorms, and in other adverse circumstances. Medical supplies, tinctures, and other medications were often difficult to come by, forcing the doctor to rely on the use of local plants and other resources in order to treat patients.
The emergence of frontier medicine came at a time when the medical profession in general was not held in high esteem. In the United States, there were few training programs of significant merit. Even the more intensive education programs for physicians tended to require little more than a year to complete. Many frontier doctors learned the profession by becoming an apprentice to a practicing physician, eventually either striking out of his own or taking over the mentor’s practice when he retired.
Frontier medicine was almost entirely the territory of males. Other than midwives, the doctor was often the only source of medical care in a frontier town. Nurses were rarely found in newly established communities, many preferring to work in facilities found on the East coast of the United States rather than deal with the difficult and taxing circumstances on the Western reserve. It was not until the closing years of the 19th century that serious reforms began to establish hospitals and other types of health care facilities in far-flung areas outside larger cities.
In spite of the reality, many people have an image of the practice of frontier medicine as involving the kindly doctor who was always ready to comfort the patient and the family while utilizing whatever resources that were on hand to treat various ailments. Given the conditions that these pioneer practitioners faced, it is to their credit that they were able to bring comfort and healing to so many patients, as well as save lives so often.