During the 1840s, the practice of medicine on the frontier was primitive and doctors were not normally available to treat sick or injured settlers. The settlers usually had to depend upon themselves or their neighbors for any assistance in a medical emergency. The soldiers who were stationed at the forts on the frontier were more fortunate than the emigrants and settlers because medical treatment was available from and dispensed by the Post Surgeon.
In 1821, the Medical Department of the Army was reorganized and consisted of one Surgeon General, eight regimental surgeons and forty-five assistant surgeons. An assistant surgeon was normally assigned to a small permanent military installation (i.e. Fort Scott), and a surgeon was stationed at Regimental Headquarters. Any person who desired an appointment as a medical officer was required to apply to the Secretary of War, through the Surgeon General, and to have a license to practice from a respectable medical association or college. Before receiving an appointment a candidate was also required to pass an examination which was conducted by a board of three medical officers who were assigned by the Surgeon General. The license and examination enabled the army to secure medical officers who had a formal medical education that was supplemented with practical experience. An assistant surgeon received $52 per month and was allowed one servant and the same allowance of fuel, quarters, etc., as a Captain. The Post Surgeon was authorized to treat civilian patients and keep the fees which his private practice generated as a supplement to his military income.
In addition to providing medical treatment to the sick, the Post Surgeon was responsible for the operation of the hospital, examined recruits, maintained the Meteorological Register, and furnished pension certificates. The Meteorological Register was a book in which the daily weather information (temperature, wind direction and force, amount of rain or snow, etc.) was recorded. At small forts, the Post Surgeon's medical staff consisted of at least one hospital steward and a cook who were both enlisted soldiers.
Some of the prevalent diseases at Fort Scott were malarial fevers, respiratory infections, pneumonia, dysentery, alcoholism and venereal disease. There were periodic epidemics of influenza and catarrh (the common cold), but none of cholera. Cultivated and wild fruits, vegetables, and herbs were traditionally used for their medicinal value by doctors and settlers. Wild onions, celery and watercress were used to prevent and cure scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency), which was common among the settlers and soldiers on the frontier.
Medical knowledge and practices of the 1840s was very primitive compared to that of the 20th century. Normally a soldier had to be very sick or severely injured before he was admitted to the hospital. The inducement of bleeding and the belief that an abundant flow of pus are two examples of accepted nineteenth century medical procedures which were often fatal. If a soldier survived an operation, his chances of recovery were minimal because aseptic surgical techniques and equipment sterilization were not developed until after the Civil War.
Soldiers in the hospital were given a daily ration of food that would be supplied by the hospital. Under the regular system of supplying provisions to the sick men in the hospital, the rations were paid for jointly by the Subsistence and Medical Departments. Often the sick were unable to eat their rations of bread and pork, and the commissary was unable to furnish fowl, mutton, eggs, milk, and butter his diet required. These were purchased from the hospital fund. A commissary was authorized, on the requisition of a medical officer to buy the following from the fund:
1. Food, solid or fluid, to be used for the diet of the sick, and not furnished by the Subsistence Department or Medical Department.
2. Articles to be used in either the preparation or serving of the food, embracing principally cooking utensils and table furniture, and not furnished by the Quartermaster's Department or Medical Department.
3. Gas, oil, and other means of illumination, to be used instead of candles, which are part of the soldier's ration.
Barley, sage, chocolate, tea, wine, brandy, etc., which were in the hospital stores and were intended for a six to twelve month's supply frequently were exhausted in half the time.
Information from this section was taken from the Historic Furnishing Plan for The Hospital at Fort Scott and an anonymous article on frontier medicine.