Frontier Medicine

In early pioneer days even doctors of medicine had little scientific knowledge. On the frontier, where doctors were unavailable, home remedies were frequently based on superstition. For example, carrying a horse chestnut would discourage rheumatism, it was thought, and hanging a bag of asafetida (a vile-smelling resin exuded by certain plants) around a child's neck would keep disease away.

Herbs, roots, barks, and berries were used for medicinal brews and extracts in the apparent belief that the stronger they tasted and smelled the more effective they would be. Sassafras tea was drunk in the spring with the belief that it would thin the blood, a condition believed desirable for summer. Sulfur and molasses was a spring tonic believed to purify the blood. Onion syrup was considered good for coughs, colds, and influenza.

Some folk remedies were found, later, to have real value. A poultice of moldy bread and water often was applied to an abscess. The mold on bread, it has since been discovered, contains the antibiotic known as penicillin.