Or Perish in the Attempt: Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis and Clark Expedition
- McEntyre, Marilyn
- Date of entry: Jan-19-2004
- Last revised: Sep-05-2006
This lively volume of medical history chronicles the forms of suffering, illness, injury, and treatment endured by the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805. Beginning with three chapters of political and medical history to set the context, the story follows the adventures of the extraordinarily fortunate "Corps of Discovery" among whom Lewis was the most trained in the medicine of the time (having studied in preparation for the trip under Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia), and he only an amateur. Even professional medicine of the time was approximate and largely ineffectual, limited mostly to purgatives, opiates and laudanum for pain relief, bleeding, and topical applications of various compounds or herbal substances.
The story chronicles the main events of the trip based on the extensive journals of Lewis and Clark as well as other historical account, maintaining focus in each chapter on the medical incidents including gastrointestinal distress from parasites and contaminated water; effects of overexposure like hypothermia and exhaustion; infections from wounds and scratches; syphilis; dislocations; muscular spasms; mosquitoes and other insect bites; snakebites and other animal attacks.
Along the way Peck pauses to explain the rather rudimentary medical theories upon which treatments were based, the effects of particular known treatments, and what Lewis and others likely knew, guessed at, or didn’t understand about lead, mercury, opium, and certain herbal substances they used. He speculates about the contexts of their medical decisions and offers occasional contemporary analogies to help readers imagine the circumstances and tradeoffs the explorers faced.