Gold Rush Medical Practices, Part 2: Doctors and Treatments of Every Description

By Guest Contributor June 15, 2017 20:00

This is the second in a two-part series about medical care during the California Gold Rush. Click here to read Part 1, “A Hazardous Journey to a Perilous Place,” from our Spring 2017 issue.

Pack mules and people, including a woman and her children, clamber across the rugged 18-mile land portion of the Panama crossing. The swampy terrain was a natural breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases.  — Frank Marryat illustration, 1855

Those lured to California’s gold fields in the mid-1850s faced en route a host of deadly hazards, including yellow fever, malaria, cholera, spotted fever, scurvy and dysentery. Once the travelers arrived, harsh conditions, violence and disease took a further toll in a place where medical care was primitive and sometimes subject to creative license.

By Carlo M. De Ferrari

Four medications could be found in almost every Gold Rush doctor’s bag:

Laudanum, a tincture of opium used to control pain.

Calomel, a purgative or laxative often prescribed in conjunction with the withdrawal of a small amount of blood.

Quinine, used to control fevers until the turn of the 20th century. Caused by mosquitoes, these fevers were virtually eliminated locally by the Sierra Railroad’s arrival in Tuolumne County in 1897. Crude oil was then purchased and dumped into Woods Creek and into ponds where mosquitoes thrived, thus bringing the disease under control.

Dover’s powders, a combination of opium, ipecac (the root of a South American plant), licorice, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and cream of tartar. When given a large dose, the powders reportedly gave the patient a “thunderous shaking up” and caused him to “explode in all directions at one time.” The old-timers expected their medications to be bitter and bring about dramatic or drastic results.

Anesthetics such as ether and chloroform were in common use on the East Coast by 1849. But the Gold Rush was several years old before they were available here. Without such drugs, doctors gave their patients sufficient opium or alcohol to dull their senses, then operated while they were being held motionless by friends or charitable bystanders.

Tuolumne County physicians tried to weed quacks from their ranks by forming the Tuolumne County Medical and Chirurgigal (Surgical) Society on July 1, 1856. It was soon embroiled in controversy when it attempted to establish rules governing members’ qualifications. The group lasted about a year.

Despite attempts to educate physicians on the West Coast, the first student did not graduate from the University of California Medical School until 1876. This was the same year the Legislature enacted the first law governing the practice of medicine in the state, which included provisions grandfathering in qualified physicians who had no diplomas.

Two women practiced medicine in Tuolumne County briefly during the Gold Rush:

Mary McBride Burt established her practice in 1856. She advertised herself as an M.D. specializing in the diseases of women and children. She also claimed to have a cure for rheumatism.

Annie L. Avery practiced in Columbia in 1857 and 1858, also specializing in diseases of women and children. She claimed to be a graduate of “the most famous medical school in America,” but never revealed its name. Dr. Avery also lectured and had a complete skeleton as well as charts and pictures with which to illustrate her talks.

A tent erected in the autumn of 1849 was Tuolumne County’s first attempt at patient housing – the ill slept on the ground. The tent was heated by a bonfire maintained at its front. An unfortunate Mexican patient, apparently delirious, fell into the fire and lost a hand before he was found.

The county’s first actual hospital was built shortly thereafter with Sonora city funds and contributions from local merchants. Constructed in November 1849 near the site of the present courthouse, the wooden building cost $542 and featured walls lined with cloth and a canvas roof. Patients occupied berths along the walls and were tended by a steward paid $4 per day.

The next hospital was established in the same area by the Catholic Church in June 1851. A well-known Italian physician, Dr. Juan Capello, was hired to operate it. Two months later, a third hospital was opened on Washington Street by a French physician, Dr. Jacques Mathieu Aubert.

Other pioneer hospitals were established at Columbia about 1856 by Dr. Leon Charnaux, a former French army surgeon, and at Springfield just south of today’s Columbia Airport. Springfield had no less than four resident physicians. Neither hospital lasted very long.

Still, no provisions were made for the care of indigent patients by local government.

To remedy this problem, the Sonora Herald urged the city council to erect such a hospital. The city tried to pass the buck to the county, and the two agencies bickered back and forth for two years. The matter was then resolved by the Legislature, which authorized counties to levy a quarter-cent tax on all property for the care of the indigent ill.

Thereafter, indigent care became the county’s responsibility, leading the board of supervisors in 1861 to buy a building and lot at Lyons and Shepherd streets, opposite today’s Old Town Sonora center.

Several of Sonora’s streets bear the names of its pioneer physicians. Snell Street was named in honor of Dr. Perez Snell, founder of the Snell Scientific Society.

Norlin Street was named for Dr. William Norrlin. Although there are several variations in the spelling of the doctor’s last name, all his original signatures spelled it “Norrlin.”

A third thoroughfare, Shepherd Street, received its name from Dr. William Shepherd. He was a very violent man and bore the reputation of being as ready to use a Bowie knife as a scalpel. He was a noted figure of the Gold Rush era, as he had previously served as the Secretary of the Navy for the Republic of Texas.

Carlo M. De Ferrari

“Gold Rush Medical Practices” was adapted by local historian Sharon Marovich from never-before-published writings of longtime Tuolumne County Historian Carlo M. De Ferrari on file at the Sonora archive that bears his name. De Ferrari died in April at the age of 93.

This material is included with permission of Tuolumne Heritage Publications, Inc., a nonprofit that publishes high-quality history books to raise funds for the archive, which houses Tuolumne County’s official records dating back to 1849.

The Archive is at 490 Greenley Rd., behind the Tuolumne County Library, and is open to the public 8am-4:30pm each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Appointments are encouraged; contact Andy Mattos, archive and records manager (209-536-1163,



By Guest Contributor June 15, 2017 20:00
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