Common Medicinal Therapies and Remedies

In the early days of Canadian settlement, there were a small number of physicians available to treat the population. Some were army physicians while a few others were civilian physicians. Unfortunately for these practitioners, it was very difficult to make a living. Factors that contributed to this included a lack of trust in the medical practices of the time and the ability of the practitioners. There was a small population of potential patients and many did not have additional income to pay for medical services. In those early days of settlement, the doctors of the time often had to have second “jobs” to support themselves.

That being said, the settlers often suffered from a myriad of injuries that required care, they often succumbed to a number of diseases some of which ran rampant through the population and of course, malnutrition was not uncommon as the settlers tried to clear and settle the land often in harsh conditions.

If possible when necessary, settlers would seek medical attention. Otherwise, self treatment using old family remedies was an option. As interactions with First Nations people increased, their natural remedies provided a new source of ‘botanic’ cures for ailments.

The early 1800s saw the establishment of the first medical schools. By the mid 1800s many unscrupulous opportunists jumped on the bandwagon of providing ‘miracle cures’. We are all familiar with the moniker ‘snake oil salesman’. Of course there were no standards or controls for the manufacture of these miracle cures. Often it was the shopkeeper who sold these remedies and it was not uncommon for them to weigh in on a diagnosis of sorts. As newspapers became popular and more common, advertising brought these miracle cures to the attention of the population.

Here are some remedies or cures of the time (courtesy of Dr. J. David Richardson, MD):

Common therapies used by practicing physicians changed somewhat over the decades of the 1860s. Dr. J. David Richardson, MD, a long time physician in Dundas, Ontario and volunteer at the Westfield Heritage Village provided the following chart of the evolution of common therapies that were used by physicians during the 1800s. You’ll note that opium was a constant over the decades. Starting in the 1860s, cupping was also a common practice and it has seen a resurgence of popularity today.

Contributing Author: Helen Callaway