A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 11, Medicine

Europeans on coming to the shores of Nova Scotia brought with them their plants, their animals, and their diseases.

The scourges of the age were typhus, measles, scarlet fever and, of course, smallpox. (To smallpox and certain other killer diseases, the Europeans1 had built up a greater immunity than other races of the world.) Smallpox was known to cover immense distances with great speed, appeared in the New World in the winter of 1518-19.2 While the Europeans, as a rule, might just carry the disease; the natives died from it, - more native Americans, in their contact with the white-man, died from Smallpox, than ever they did from gunshot wounds.

There were any number of persons, many of the itinerant kind, who made great promises to cure people especially if a bottle of their special concoction were to be purchased. There were not many qualified medical doctors in Nova Scotia during the first part of the 19th century. In 1828, an act was passed in Nova Scotia for the licensing of medical doctors, so to "exclude ignorant and unskillful persons from the practice of Physic and Surgery." A sick person or the family of a sick person may avail themselves of persons who claim to be medically trained, or simply have special medicines to sell, but most every family had its own home cures passed down from generation to generation.

"Among the remedies used were bleeding, blisters, plasters, and poultices. When Simeon Perkins sprained his ankle on June 19, 1805, he bathed his ankle with camphor and vinegar and applied evergreen. Afterwards he bathed it with pickle and applied hyssop which had been moistened in rum and pounded. When Betsey Perkins suffered from headaches and dizziness in the summer of 1805, a blister was put on the back of her neck. Bothered by sciatica late in 1809, Simeon Perkins applied hot salt and ashes to his hip in a flannel bag, used a plaster of pitch, and drank mustard whey. When he had lameness in his left knee, leg, and foot, early in 1812, Perkins used a variety of medications. He tried camphor, vinegar, and the white of an egg, essence of mustard, and Whitehead's patent medicine. He bathed his foot in strong pickle and he washed it with warm rum. He applied opodeldoc mixed with spirits, spirits of turpentine, liniment, and a blister, all to little or no avail."3
Circa 1828: In one of the local newspapers, this was to be found: "William Brown's compound boneset candy; Mrs. Gardener's Indian Balsam of Liverwort and Horehound; Buffalo Oil for the hair; Extract of Gall and creosote for toothache; and Brown's Portable Yeats."4

A. C. Dunlop wrote of a pharmacist and entrepreneur who resided at Pictou, J. D. B. Fraser (1807-69). The author apparently had available to him, Fraser's day books. The entries made in 1848, references are made to chloroform (purchased by medical doctors), castor oil by the gallon, epsom salts, friar's balsom, tincture of digitalis, cochineal5, jalap6, and many other exotic medicines. Fraser also could put together mixtures such as a whooping cough mixture. Fraser's day book also disclosed he sold other goods: ketchup, molasses by the gallon, sugar, coffee, tobacco, varnish, soap, candles and gun-powder.7

It can thus be seen that the pharmacist at Pictou, Fraser, was an entrepreneur. It was difficult to make a living at just the one thing. Dentistry, for example, except for the occasional itinerant, was very much a sideline, especially for watch and clockmakers as they had the experience and talent to fix and apply small appliances.8

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Peter Landry