Medicines of the 1890s

Juneau's early inhabitants were short of doctors, forced to get creative for cures
Juneau's first boom of the 1880s resulted in a large population of miners without much in the way of medical care.

In 1890, the population of Alaska was 32,052; the city of Douglas had 402 inhabitants and the city of Juneau contained 1,253.


At that time, the only way out of town was by boat. Generally that would be some sort of personal boat or canoe, but once in awhile a larger commercial boat would stop by to deliver supplies and/or additional mine workers.

There were very few women and even less children; the winters then were colder than they are today and ice bergs from the Taku Glacier floated in the Gastineau Channel in front of the town. To a large extent, it was a pretty grim existence. However, the gold mines would cause both Juneau and Douglas to expand dramatically by the beginning of the 20th century.

Medicine had made its way to the West Coast in places like San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, but Southeast Alaska was on the very edge of the frontier and had little to no doctors to meet the needs of its population. The possibility of diseases that are seldom heard of today were the concern of every Juneauite.

All kinds of “remedies” and “cures” were used, most of which had little or no chance of actually curing anything. Some, like the “across-the-counter” drugs sold today, would help ease symptoms but not much more. Take a short walk through some of the extremely old cemeteries in Juneau and Douglas, and with a bit of calculation you will find that life expectancy for those who lived during the 1890s was quite short compared to today’s standards.

19th century cures

In a book that I own, called “Dining Room and Kitchen, an Economical Guide in Practical Housekeeping for the American Housewife,” written in 1890 by Mrs. Grace Townsend, I came across some examples of the types of medication used by our early pioneers.

“Whooping Cough Cure: Gather 2 oz. olive oil, 2 oz. Jamaica rum, 2 oz. brown sugar and 1 drachm (about 1/8 oz.) laudanum. Melt the sugar in a little water and add the other ingredients. Give a teaspoon after every paroxysm.

After the third week of whooping cough, put 1 oz. strongest liquid ammonia in 1 gallon of boiling water in an open pan. Keep up the steam by putting in a red hot brick. Place in the center of the room where the patient is. This will frequently terminate the malady in three or four days. Try it each night until relieved.

Diphtheria: A gargle of sulphur and water has been used with much success in cases of diphtheria. Let the patient swallow a little of the mixture. Or, when you discover that your throat is soar, bind a strip of flannel around the throat, wet in camphor and gargle salt and vinegar occasionally.”

Both whooping cough and diphtheria were deadly and it wasn’t until the 20th century that vaccines resolved them, along with chickenpox, measles, mumps, smallpox, polio, and tuberculosis. Of course, there were other medical emergencies such as wounds and tooth problems. The following are some examples of methods used to resolve these issues:

“For dressing cuts, wounds or sores: A surgeon’s solution of carbolic acid and pure glycerine mixed in equal parts may be applied on soft lint or linen cloth.

Salve for cuts and burns: To one-half pound of sweet lard add one-fourth pound of beeswax and the same of resin; beat all together until well mixed and pour in a little tin box. Apply a little to the wound on a soft cotton cloth.

Toothache: The worst toothache, or neuralgia coming from the teeth, may be speedily and delightfully ended by the application of a bit of clean cotton saturated in a solution of ammonia and placed on the defective tooth. Sometimes the late sufferer is prompted to momentary laughter by the application, but the pain will disappear. Another method calls for 1 teaspoon alum reduced to a powder and an equal quantity of fine salt well mixed, applied to the gums by dipping a moistened finger in the mixed powder. Put some also in the tooth, and keep rubbing the gums with it; it scarcely ever fails to cure.”

A contemporary opinion

I discussed these methods with Scott Watts, a pharmacist at Ron’s Apothecary.

“Medications and treatments have definitely changed,” Watts said, “but, as in the past, many of our medications today, both over-the-counter and prescription, do not cure; rather they treat only the symptoms. A big improvement from this time period has come from antibiotics and immunizations to curb the spread of disease and illness”.

Modern day cures were and are developed by scientific laboratories and are implemented by medical doctors and scientists. All are closely overseen by the federal government to insure that the cure is not worse than the disease.

However, there are always exceptions; one of them is aspirin. This particular medicine was first found to be in use in more than 2400 years ago by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. Aspirin was initially found in the bark of two separate plants — willow and meadowsweet (Spiraea ulmaria). Aspirin, also known as acetylsalicylic acid, was fully developed by Bayer in 1899 and was patented in 1900. The word “aspirin” was developed by Bayer. The “a” was for acetyl chloride, “spir” was from Spiraea ulmaria and the “in” was a common addition to the end of many medicine names during the late 19th century.

Interestingly, both aspirin and heroin were once trademarks belonging to and sold by Bayer. After Germany lost World War I, Bayer was forced to give up both trademarks as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Today, aspirin has been found to have many medical uses and research is ongoing concerning its possible use for certain cancers. Because of the abundance of willow in Alaska, it would not be surprising to learn that a version of medication similar to what Hippocrates used may have been in use by both the Alaska Natives and the miners during the 1890s.

• Jack Marshall is a 32-year Alaska resident who has been in Juneau for 26 years. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were pioneers of Oregon and Washington, leaving Alaska for him to discover.


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