Playing Doctor

Original image by Isaiah Rustad
Samuel Zeller

No, I’m not referring to bedroom games.  Really!

In the continuing series on things we don’t have to do anymore, providing medical care for our families is on that list.

I remember reading Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott when I was very young.  I was too young to appreciate the setting and time period, so it puzzled me why, when Beth was ill, why they didn’t simply send for a doctor.

In the same book, everyone was vastly, deeply relieved when Mrs. March came home and tended to Beth.

It took a lot of intervening years and education to appreciate the unspoken assumptions of a novel written in 1869.

  1. No one considered fetching a doctor.  The nearest doctor would have been miles away, just to begin.
  2. Everyone assumed that the mother of the family would be able to treat Beth.

Around the same time as Little Women was being written, women were pioneering in the west.  They would live on farms and ranches a long, long way from medical services and if anyone got sick, it was up to them to figure out what was wrong and treat the illness.

Women also stitched wounds, cured infections and more.

And this was just over 150 years ago!

Wind back history some more.  Doesn’t matter how much or where you land.  Any time before the late Victoria era, physicians were quacks who killed more than they cured–although they were pretty good at stitching up sword wounds, as long as the patient hadn’t bled too much.

Some of the wisest medical experts in most periods of history were older women who understood the power of herbs and spices, and through empirical evidence (that is, they figure it out by trying stuff), knew the best course of treating common illnesses and diseases.  Compared to physicians, these women must have seemed like miracle workers…and some men didn’t like that.  Accusations of witchcraft, which were a death sentence in most eras, were often leveled at women who seemed to know too much about the human body and were effective at treating it.

Even ordinary women needed to have a knowledge of medicine, for when illness, disease, wounds or ailments struck, it was up to her to deal with them.

There are weaknesses and flaws in every public health system in the world…but aren’t you glad they’re there?


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Tracy Cooper-Posey
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