‘Gunsmoke’ and early day medicine

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I I was watching “Gunsmoke” one lazy weekend morning on Antenna TV. I can’t remember which episode. One followed the other. But it had a scene about Doc trying to nurse a woman back to health.

Doc and Sheriff Matt Dillon found the young woman on a ranch, where she had been a victim of abuse, and rescued her after Matt punched out the bad guy.

As she woke up and Doc rushed to her side, he felt her forehead and said something like: “You need to rest. Let me give you something for that.”

Doc, she just woke up. I think she has had a lot of rest already. What are you giving her, anyway?

It could have been heroin, morphine, cocaine or some other snake-oil drug that was good for just about everything back in the 1800s. Anyway, the young woman fell right back to sleep.

By the way, there was no snake oil in snake oil.

When the Feds seized a shipment and tested it, it was discovered that snake oil was about 99 percent mineral oil and 1 percent beef fat, with traces of red pepper and turpentine thrown in the mix to give it a more medicinal smell.

It could cure absolutely nothing.

I am always amazed how far we have come in medicine and technology. But in the “Gunsmoke” days, things were rolling at a slower pace.

Around the mid-1880s, scientists were able to isolate the active ingredient of the coca leaf, Erthroxlyn coca (later known as cocaine).

Marketed as a treatment for toothaches, depression, sinusitis, lethargy, alcoholism, and impotence, cocaine was soon being sold as a tonic, lozenge, powder and even used in cigarettes.

It appeared in Sears Roebuck catalogues. Popular home remedies, such as Allen’s Cocaine Tablets, could be purchased for just 50 cents a box and offered relief for everything from hay fever, throat troubles, nervousness and headaches to sleeplessness.

Cocaine actually doesn’t cure any of that. But back in Doc’s days, it was one of the drugs that people just flocked to – for some reason. Then Coca Cola was invented, and the rest is history.

In the late 1800s, heroin was introduced as a safe and non-addictive substitute for morphine. That must have been good news to all those addicted to morphine.

Finding it to be five times more effective, and supposedly less addictive, Bayer began advertising a heroin-laced aspirin in 1898, which they marketed towards children suffering from sore throats, coughs, and cold. (Take two aspirin and call me in the morning, if you still can.)

Somehow the human race made it past this stage of medicine. I guess it was better than bleeding someone to death trying to heal them, or putting leeches all over them. We took very small steps at first to see what worked based on someone’s idea of “Hey, let’s try this and see what happens.”

But not all of it was quackery, as I can attest with a family anecdote.

My grandmother saved my father’s life during WWII after a shrapnel lodged in his shoulder by cooking up a batch of granny’s tonic and treating the shoulder with it continuously. It worked. My father overcame the infection and stayed alive (for which I am really thankful).

If I had the ingredients to the tonic, I’d be very rich right now. But I don’t think it was ever written down. My grandmother just remembered it from her grandmother, and so on.

And there was always tea. It wasn’t used just for drinking.

Back in my childhood days, tea seemed to be the cure-all. Have a sore throat? Drink some tea. Eye infection? Put tea bags on your eyelids. Runny nose? More tea. Broken arm? Make some tea and call the doctor.

Do you have any granny’s tonic or old-fashioned medicine stories? Send me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com.