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Frontier medicine at the Fort Davis Post Hospital
Written by E. Dan Klepper. Photographs by E. Dan Klepper.

Medical artifacts from the late 1800s are on display in the Historic Site’s restored Post Surgeon’s Office. (Photo by E. Dan Klepper)

Imagine you’re a young soldier in the late 1800s, assigned to Fort Davis, a military post located in far West Texas. With a life expectancy of only 48 years (33 if you’re African American), you’ve got little spare time to ponder the inevitable. Besides, you’re too busy tending to the basics of military life—practicing drills, hauling water, taking care of the cavalry horses and other livestock, cutting wood for heat, escorting citizens across the Big Bend country, or fending off attacks by unfriendly Comanches. With little time left for anything else (except maybe an occasional binge at the local tavern), you’re definitely not sweating the small stuff. But however arduous and uncertain your life may be, it’s the small stuff that constitutes your greatest danger in the form of invisible germs, present everywhere in your unsanitary surroundings.

Through the 1800s, little was known about the causes for diseases, particularly how something as simple as a cold, as persistent as dysentery, or as deadly as tuberculosis could be transmitted merely by airborne exposure or hand-to-hand contact. All three illnesses were common at Fort Davis during the late 1800s, along with a litany of conditions like tetanus, measles, typhoid fever, wounds (gunshot and otherwise), and syphilis. The record of diagnoses for the sick and wounded at Fort Davis between 1880 and 1889 alone included more than 200 conditions, many of them suffered by dozens of soldiers at a time, making the fort’s hospital a busy place for treatment, convalescing, and, unfortunately, contagion.

In 1854, the year Fort Davis was established along the Texas frontier, tents served as its hospital, soon followed by a large building of wooden pickets and thatched roofing. A later replacement, a small adobe structure with mud roof and floors, collapsed in heavy rains. In 1876, the fort built a permanent hospital, where soldiers were treated until the fort closed in 1891. The adobe structure, outfitted with a tin roof and wooden floors on a stone foundation, survives today. Thanks to an ongoing restoration project, the hospital now provides a primary touchstone for telling the Fort Davis story.

The Post Hospital records at the Fort Davis National Historic Site are some of the most complete and detailed archival documentation of life at the fort. The post surgeon’s precise record-keeping has enabled the site to provide visitors with a concise view of the fort’s medical practices during the late 1800s. Considered draconian by today’s standards, medical and surgical practices during the period reflected a lack of the scientific knowledge that we now take for granted, resulting in medicinal concoctions and procedures that often provided no cure and were sometimes more harmful than beneficial.

In an appeal to the macabre within us all, the exhibit also includes a “Wheel of Misfortune” that allows you to select a disease and then find out its treatment, ranging from mercury pills to opium, or, for the really unfortunate, amputation by saw.

In order to explore this aspect of life along the Texas frontier, the National Park Service renovated the Post Hospital and recreated its Post Surgeon’s Office, installing authentic furnishings and medical devices including an examination table, pharmaceuticals, surgical instruments, and the primary diagnostic tool of the times—a human skeleton. The Hospital Steward’s room, next to the surgeon’s office, features an exhibit that describes common conditions such as tonsillitis (330 cases recorded in a nine-year period) and the tools (saws, catheters, and scalpels) used to address them. In an appeal to the macabre within us all, the exhibit also includes a “Wheel of Misfortune” that allows you to select a disease and then find out its treatment, ranging from mercury pills to opium, or, for the really unfortunate, amputation by saw. Another clever exhibit guides guests from the main visitor center to the parade grounds and then to the Post Hospital, gradually revealing details from five of the fort’s medical cases. You’ll be kept guessing about the outcomes until the results are revealed at the hospital.

Despite the primitive state of medicine, the late 1800s also witnessed radical scientific discoveries that revolutionized medical and surgical practices, and many of them were made available to the soldiers at Fort Davis. The Post Hospital provided the most advanced medical care west of San Antonio and hosted some of the best surgeons in the country, courtesy of the Army Medical Department. They routinely used products like carbolic acid (a disinfectant), anesthesias including chloroform and ether, and painkillers like opium, cocaine, morphine, and liquor to fight infection and reduce pain during and after treatment. But despite the advancements, the actual procedures continued to harbor a disturbing edge.

“Gunshot wound, right thigh,” reads one Post Hospital diagnosis from 1888. “Ball [the bullet] cut out of calf and wound dressed with carbolic cerate.” No mention of anesthesia.

“Contused and lacerated wound, severe, second finger, left hand,” reads another. Description of surgery? Amputation “with antiseptic precautions.” The localized anesthetic included “cocaine, 4 percent solution, injected around seat of injury.”

The soldiers suffering from these injuries were relatively lucky. “Patient returned to duty, cured,” states their case conclusions. Not so for others.

“Gunshot wound, accidental shooting” reads a report made in 1881. “Death occurred while marking targets. … Ball came from the rifle of Private Harrie Dearie, Company B, First Infantry. Victim died one-half hour afterwards; buried the next day.” No anesthesia necessary. Another report states simply: “Died from being kicked in the abdomen by a horse.”

One of the most common conditions afflicting the fort was dysentery, an inflammatory disorder of the intestines caused by infectious pathogens (germs) entering the body through contaminated food or water. The condition is highly contagious, passed along by oral contact with objects, including hands. Throughout the 19th Century, until the medical community recognized the relationship between illness and hygiene, and the value of actions such as hand-washing, germs compromised the health of soldiers as well as citizens every day. The Fort Davis National Historic Site’s renovation of the Post Hospital and its informative exhibits bring this reality to light, not only providing a first-hand, intimate look at West Texas military life in the late 1800s, but also inspiring gratitude for living in today’s modern, hygiene-conscious age.

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