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Courtesy S.B. Historical Museum

Question: ‘What was the practice of medicine like in the Spanish era?’

-Jo Lindros


Medical practices in Alta California under Spanish rule ran the gamut from sophisticated to what today would be considered downright quackery. Medical practitioners in Alta California in the late 1700s faced any number of difficulties, including isolation, lack of supplies, and primitive transportation and communication networks. The newly arrived Spanish settlers did what they could with what they had.

The Native Americans of the South Coast region, the Chumash, had their own medical traditions. Shamans were both spiritual guides and doctors in Chumash society and the two roles were closely linked. Much of the medicine they practiced was based on their perceived supernatural powers and their connections to the spirits. Illnesses were fought with ritualistic singing and dancing. Modern-day studies have shown that belief can be a powerful healer, and a sufferer’s faith in the shaman’s power to heal may well have had beneficial effects.

A second aspect to Chumash medicine was the use of herbs and plants. Elderberry was used to fight chills and fever, bay leaves for headaches, and willow bark for toothaches. Ritual and medicine came together in the use of heated carved stone pendants for muscle ache, the ritualistic carvings and the heat believed to be of equal importance in the cure. The shaman also utilized blood-letting, using a tube of stone or the hollow bone of a bird to suck out disease from a patient’s body. Another common treatment was a session in the temescal, the Chumash version of the sauna, to sweat out maladies.

The primary medical challenge facing the early seaborne Spanish explorers was scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C due to poor diet. In its final stages, scurvy could kill through massive internal bleeding. Sebasti¡n Vizca-no’s expedition of 1602-03 was especially hard hit. By the time his flotilla traveled from Mexico up to the Santa Barbara Channel, almost 30 percent of the expedition’s members had been debilitated, and it would only get worse.

The state of medical science on these expeditions is illustrated by the plight of Jun-pero Serra during Gaspar de Portol¡’s 1769 trek. Afflicted with painful ulcerated legs, in desperation, Serra sought out one of the party’s muleteers, asking how he treated wounds on the legs of mules and horses. The muleteer concocted a salve of herbs and tallow that eased Serra’s condition.

Medicine was a fairly high priority for the Spanish authorities. Early on, they appointed a Surgeon General, based in Monterey, to oversee the territory’s healthcare, but the first office holders earned less than an army lieutenant, and there was a high turnover. Such were the difficulties of the position; the first Surgeon General reportedly went insane. The missions also played an important role in medicine. Each mission had an infirmary, with quality of care depending on the padres’ skills and the state of supplies.

The newcomers from Mexico brought their own home remedies. A mixture of red wine and rosemary applied to the skin was supposed to control wrinkles (quite the modern-sounding concern). The same mixture along with certain flowers warded off cancer. A boiled concoction of eggs in vinegar was the answer for dysentery. Snuff made of powdered mustard resulted in greater powers of concentration, accompanied by a warning about addiction. Superstition also entered into the mix; the tooth of a black dog held in the mouth would cure toothache.

The Chumash were decimated by European diseases including venereal disease and measles that, if they did not kill outright, drastically reduced birth rates. One disease that was better controlled was smallpox, due to quarantine measures and inoculation.

The state of Californian medicine improved from the 1820s onward as supplies became more plentiful, knowledge improved, and more physicians made their way to the territory. These resources made all the difference.

Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara's history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

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