Select Page



There is a wide gap between the 19th century perception and understanding of diseases and illnesses and what we in the 21st century know. Today, due to advances in medical knowledge of anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, pharmacology, and physiology, we view 19th century medical care as primitive, unscientific, deplorable and despicable. For example, a belief among early frontier settlers was that the more distasteful or obnoxious a concoction was, the more effective it would be. Koch’s Germ Theory of Disease and the scientific method were not introduced until the late 1800’s. 18th and 19th century medicine was essentially a practice of trial and error. If the patient did not die and recovered, it was generally assumed that the treatment given was responsible for the cure. In the early and mid 1800’s, the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses can be categorized into three trains of thought and practice: Domestic, Botanic and Heroic Medicine or Allopathy.19th Century Medical Thought Domestic Medicine involved practical experience and common sense developed in the harsh conditions of isolated rural frontier life. The use of medicinal plants and herbs and faith healing, as mentioned in the New Testament, were at the core of this practice. These approaches were used by early members of the Church as recorded in the Book of Mormon (Alma 15:10-11; Alma 46:40; 3 Nephi 17:8-10) and endorsed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. (D&C 35:9; D&C 42:43-44; D&C 46:19-20).

Botanic Medicine constituted the use of remedies consisting of elixirs, potions, concoctions and pills from natural vegetation: herbs, flowers, roots, barks, seeds, leaves, etc. Neither licensing nor special training was required of the botanic doctors, who perpetuated their supposed educational credentials and medicines to an ignorant clientele by deception and under the guise of Latinized medical terms. Natural products, however, do contain chemicals which possess active medicinal properties. Some products were potentially toxic if given in too high a dosage. The botanic doctors just didn’t fully understand the pharmacology of their products.

Heroic Medicine or Allopathy is a method of disease treatment using remedies that produced effects differing or opposite from those caused by the disease. An example of allopathy is treating constipation with a laxative. Allopathic doctors maintained the belief that miasmas (foul odors emanating from sewage, cesspools and rotting vegetable matter), filth, and environmental factors were the cause of diseases. Dr. Boerhave at the University of Leyden in the mid 1700’s maintained that the body was a hydraulic mechanism of pumps and pipes. If a pipe should clog, the pumps were forced to work harder to force blood around the obstruction, causing heat or fever. Popular allopathic remedies and methods of treatment were attempts to cleanse, purify, balance and re-establish the fluidic harmony of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile with the four bodily conditions: hot, cold, wet and dry. This type of thinking was promoted by Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the foremost and influential American medical minds during Revolutionary War times. Major allopathic treatments and rationales included:

  1. Bleeding – release bad blood containing the disease from the patient’s body. Bleeding techniques include; Leeches, cupping (heated cup to create a vacuum) and blood-letting or venesection (cutting a patient’s vein with a lancet).
  2. Blistering – create a new pain for the patient to focus on instead of the pain they were currently suffering. Blistering involved causing a 2nd degree burn to occur and then draining the resulting sore. Paste-like plasters of varying formulations were placed on the back or chest to cause the blistering.
  3. Purging – cleanse the body of toxins or irritants by evacuating the patient’s intestines (bowels) using powerful purgatives. Calomel was the mostly commonly used laxative.
  4. Puking – expel poisons from the body and relieve tension on the arteries. Dosing the patient with emetics induced the desired vomiting.

Other allopathic techniques included: Sweating, fumigation, dehydration and application of sulfur and mercury-containing rubbing ointments.

Dr. George B. Sanderson, Battalion Surgeon

Allopathy was the prevailing thought among physicians, surgeons and medical practitioners of the early and mid 1800’s. Often medical schooling consisted of medical students who merely purchased tickets to attend lectures, but they received little or no real “hands-on” medical training. It was with this type of mind set in European and post-Revolutionary War American medical colleges that Dr. George B. Sanderson, contract medical doctor assigned to the Mormon Battalion at Ft. Leavenworth by Lt. Col. James Allen, received his medical schooling. Although his military “bedside” manners may have been rough, arrogant and abusive to the Battalion volunteers, in stark contrast to a more benevolent form of interaction that prevailed in Mormon communities, Dr. Sanderson was simply using commonly accepted medical practices of the day in administering doses of calomel, arsenic and other approved military medicines to soldiers complaining of illnesses.

Contributing to the conflict was that the Battalion volunteers were also trying to adhere to the instructions given by Brigham Young and other Church leaders at their enlistment to refrain from the mineral medicines used by mainstream medical practitioners. Remember that Col. Cooke described the Battalion soldiers as being obedient, but obstinate. Army dragoon Lt. A.J. Smith, Battalion commander from outside Ft. Leavenworth to Santa Fe, had experience in the regular army of malingering soldiers faking illnesses to get out of duty chores or drills. Lt. Smith relied implicitly on the military surgeon to handle all medically related issues. Dr. Sanderson, being a newcomer to the Battalion, possibly was desirous of establishing his authority as the medical official and to augment the military discipline that was expected of, but not entirely forthcoming, from the 496 nonmilitary Mormon refugees comprising the Mormon Battalion formed only one month earlier.

Dr. Sanderson’s previous life as a Missouri farmer and slave-owner may have also contributed to his supposed mean-spirited approach and perceived distain for the Mormon soldiers. Dr. Sanderson issuing harsh curses at the soldiers and saying that he would send as many to hell as he could certainly didn’t endear him to the Battalion. Journal entries describing the soldiers holding an administered dose of mineral medicine in their mouths until out of sight and then spitting it out may have been because of the nasty taste, their refusal to ingest the medicine on religious convictions or a combination of the two. Once Dr. Sanderson got wind of this, he required that the soldiers swallow the medicine in his presence. The Battalion sergeants reported to Lt. Smith that Sanderson was giving calomel for every ailment, whether boils, rheumatism, fever or lame backs, but their complaints went unresolved by Lt. Smith.

Alva Phelps, who had been ailing, died several hours after taking a dose of medicine from Sanderson’s rusty spoon. Although Phelps probably died from complications of his illness on his weakened body rather than the medicine per se, the Battalion dubbed Dr. Sanderson with the infamous title, Dr. Death.

It seems that in contrast to Lt. Col. Allen, who was held in high esteem by the Battalion enlistees, Dr. Sanderson failed to appreciate or understand that respect of the troops is earned, not demanded, by the nature and intent of one’s actions. Most of the venomous journal entries regarding Dr. Sanderson’s personality and treatments (Dr. Death, his rusty spoon, “black” hospital wagon, and poisonous medicines) abated about two months after he attached with the Battalion in late Aug 1846. Also around this time (end of Oct 1846), the Battalion enlistees were becoming more accustomed to the rigors and discipline of military life and they were now under the command of Lt. Col. Cooke, rather than Lt. Smith. It might have been that both sides eventually learned to tolerate each other as Dr. Sanderson continued treating the Battalion soldiers throughout their march to San Diego and during their military stay in California.

Types of 19th Century Military Medicines

Military medical kits described for the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803) and the Civil War (1861) contained a variety of medicines that can be characterized by their general uses. These types of medicines would most likely have also been used during the Mexican War (1846). A few examples are:

  1. Mineral and Herbal Cathartics: medicines that acted as purgatives or laxatives to clear the bowels – Calomel (blue mass), jalap, Glauber’s salt (sodium sulfate), colocynth extract, Olei ricini (castor oil). Dr. Rush’s Bilious pills, known as Thunderbolts or Thunder Clappers, were comprised of calomel and a second potent purgative, jalap, which had “explosive” results.
  2. Emetics: medicines that induced vomiting – ipecacuanha (ipecac), antimony-potassium tartrate and the lobelia herb.
  3. Topical analgesics: medicines used on the skin to ease pain – Gum camphor, tragacanth and calamine lotion (zinc oxide, ferric oxide, bentonite – an aluminum silicate clay).
  4. Pain Relievers: medicines used to reduce pain – Opium, laudanum (alcohol tincture of 10% opium), morphia (morphine sulfate), Spiritus vini gallici (brandy) and whiskey.
  5. Fever Reducers: medicines used to combat intermittent fevers and chills (ague) – Quinine sulfate. Peruvian bark and cinchona were natural sources of quinine.

Common illnesses that were encountered in the frontier included: constipation from a high meat diet with scarcity of vegetables for roughage, ague, cholera, colic, congestive fever, diarrhea, diphtheria, dysentery, malaria, measles, parasites, smallpox, scurvy, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, as well as headaches, joint aches, sore muscles, abrasions, bites (insect and reptile), blisters, boils, bruises, burns and scalds, lacerations, toothaches, etc.

Medicines and Herbs Specifically Recorded in Battalion Journals

Calomel – a white, tasteless powder consisting of mercurous chloride (Hg2Cl2) that was packaged in paper to protect it from light which would cause it to decompose to deadly mercuric chloride (HgCl2). Taken over time or heavy doses would induce symptoms of mercury poisoning: salivation, bleeding gums, mouth sores and tooth loss. Calomel was a heavily used, all-purpose medicine used mainly as a laxative. The insoluble powder was administered orally by placing it onto a spoon and adding some water to help facilitate its ingestion by swallowing.

Arsenic – 1% solution of potassium arsenite (Fowler’s Solution) used as an all-purpose medicine, mainly for diarrhea. It was administered orally via a spoon.

Lobelia – An herb also known as Wild or Indian tobacco, emetic herb, puke weed, or vomit weed. It was provided as a packaged powder or as a tincture with a strong, acrid, nauseous taste similar to tobacco.

Quinine – purified quinine was in the salt form: quinine sulfate.

Bayberry Bark Bitters– Also known as wax myrtle, candleberry and tallow shrub. The root bark was dried and pulverized to a powder which was kept in the dark. The active ingredients include triterpenes, flavonoids and tannins. Its common use was for diarrhea and dysentery, but it also has antibiotic properties which may give some credence to its success as a fever reducer among the Choctaw Indians.

Chamomile flowers – had combined activities as fever reducer, vomiting inducer or carminative (expulser of stomach gas- flatulence). The flowers could be eaten directly or brewed into a tea.

Ginger tea – Mild stimulant and carminative used to alleviate symptoms of colds, nausea, colic and diarrhea.

It is entirely probable that Dr. Sanderson administered various medicines at his disposal beyond those specifically mentioned in journals. Battalion journal writers probably weren’t overly interested in the names of the medicines they were given. It is tempting to speculate whether Dr. Sanderson might have used some common medicines, such as lobelia and colocynth, more frequently because of the bitter taste suggested in journals whereas calomel is described as being tasteless.

Major References

  1. The Natural Health Perspective, A History of
  2. Fisher, Peggy, Folk Medicine, West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. X (No. 4) and Vol. XI (No. 1) 1997.
  3. Fleek, Sherman, History May Be Searched in Vain – A Military History of the Mormon Battalion, 2006.
  4. Nondorf, Tracy, Lewis and Clark: Doctors in the
  5. Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States
  6. Ricketts, Norma, The Mormon Battalion – U.S. Army of the West, 1846-1848, 1996.
  7. Ridenhour, Lynn, Medicine and