Western medicine

The Wayno/Piraro Bizarro for Epiphany (1/6) — Wayno’s title: “Lone Prairie Pre-Op” — plays on the ambiguity of Western, and taps into a bit of lore about the American Old West:

(If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page.)

Western medicine ‘the medicine in Westerns’ (illustrated above) vs. Western medicine ‘medicine characteristic of the Western region of the world, in particular of  Europe and the U.S.’ (contrasted with Eastern medicine, earlier Oriental medicine).

The ambiguity. From NOAD:

adj. western: … 2 (usually Western) [a] living in or originating from the west, in particular Europe or the US: Western society. [b] relating to or characteristic of the West or its inhabitants: the history of Western art.

noun western (also Western): a film, television drama, or novel about cowboys in the western US, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The lore about the American Old West. According to this lore, effective anesthesia in this context was limited to alcohol: the swig of whiskey in the Bizarro. Otherwise, if you were undergoing an invasive medical procedure, your only choice was to grit your teeth so as to keep from screaming in pain: for example, by biting down on a leather strap, as in the Bizarro.

As it turns out, actual cowboys, settlers, etc. had a great deal more in the way of anesthetics available to them. From the rather jaunty account on the Legends of America site (“Exploring history, destinations, people, & legends of this great country since 2003”), in its page “Drugs in the Old West”:

The dice and the guns weren’t the only things loaded in the Old West — so were many of the men and women. Generally, when we think of people being “loaded” in those days, the image of men standing at a long bar knocking down shots of Firewater or White Lightning immediately comes to mind. However, the fact is that drugs such as morphine and cocaine were being used with frequency. These, along with cannabis (marijuana), heroin and other narcotics, were legal, could be purchased over the counter, and were liberally prescribed by doctors for a multitude of ailments, even to children. Coupled with opium dens, patent medicines, and the easy availability of laudanum [a tincture of opium in grain alcohol], it’s a wonder more pioneers didn’t overdose.

4 Responses to “Western medicine”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    If you believe the movie “Tombstone” (1993), Mattie Blaylock, considered to be Wyatt Earp’s common-law wife, was addicted to laudanum (and may have died eventually of an overdose).

  2. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    Inhalation anesthesia (ether and chloroform) was introduced in 1845 and came into rapid use, and I suppose it was available in “the Old West”. Alcohol and opium aren’t of much help in averting the acute pain of a surgical procedure.

    • J B Levin Says:

      Some of the traditional (cinematic) Western use of alcohol and bite straps comes from situations such as a Civil War hospital tent where ether was known to be effective but supplies had long since run out.

      • Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

        I’ve had an anesthesiologist tell me the same terrible situation happened to him in Vietnam. A terribly wounded patient arrived, and he had no anesthetic for him. only succinylcholine to paralyze his muscles. They operated on him that way, fully conscious. They did what they had to do to save his life.

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