More on the country doctor of Lincoln’s era




Lincoln's New Salem

Lincoln’s New Salem



When my boyhood family doctor made house calls, he always had his black leather “doctor bag” with him. I remember him coming up to my bedroom to examine me for whatever sickness that kept me home from school. Into his bag he would reach…


Author R. Carlyle Buley writes about the pioneer doctor of Abraham Lincoln’s time. I suppose the doctor then also had a “doctor bag” of some sort too. Buley’s book The Old Northwest Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 Volume 1 describes some of the “tools of his trade:”

“His equipment was simple: perhaps mortar and pestle, pair of balances, some homemade splints and bandages, a few drugs, possibly a small set of instruments, and, of course, horse and saddlebags. By the late 1830’s most of the better equipped doctors also carried stethoscopes, tooth forceps, and a few obstetrical instruments. In the absence of complicated equipment the doctor relied upon his fingers, his eyes, ears, and nose. Temperature and pulse he could feel; color of skin, lips, eyes, and nails meant much, as did the sound of voice, cough, and breathing of the patient. He could smell out a case of typhoid or measles.”

So what did my family doctor pull out of his bag when checking me over as a “sick kid” at home? Well, he certainly had a stethoscope. He would have also used a tongue depressor (“Say ahh…”). Of course, he had a thermometer too. But mostly, I think my doctor relied very much on what the doctor of Lincoln’s day did-his keenly developed senses and observational skills. And isn’t that, after all, what makes a doctor a great doctor?


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