the 1910s Promise and Peril
by Jo Allison
The 1910s were promising and perilous years in America and across the world. Many pages on this site deal with St. Louis, Missouri, a city representative of all the 1910s had to offer—and the setting of many of my novels.
So, what happened in 1910 if you
got a booboo or worse?
Well, as for the booboo, you’d probably just wrap cloth around it. Band-aids weren’t invented until 1921. (That’s from Medical News Today, MNT.com, History of Medicine. Much of what follows is from that cool site, unless otherwise noted.)
If someone medically-minded were about, you might get the booboo cleaned with a disinfectant, probably what we would call phenol and what was called carbolic acid back then. It’s not clear that everyone saw the value of disinfecting, but they should have. Penicillin didn’t come along until the 1940s, so bacterial infections were serious.
One of the most dreaded diseases of the time—at least among a certain part of the population—was syphilis, a deadly infection spread through sexual intercourse. It involved nasty sores and, in some cases, a kind of insanity toward the end. A cure was being developed in 1910, but even that had some severe side effects.
On the other hand, disinfectants were used in childbirth, reducing childbirth fever; ether was used in surgeries; there were vaccines against typhus, diphtheria, and rabies; and X-rays had been invented. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was known (according to the American Heart Association,) but it’s not obvious that most doctors, let alone everyday citizens, would have tried it. Most importantly, the Bayer company (in Germany) had come up with aspirin, a derivative of, and improvement over, willow bark.
And what about doctors? In 1910, in St. Louis and around the country, medical practice was less regulated. Many medical schools were small and proprietary—meaning they were run strictly for profit, recruiting whatever would-be doctors they could. Some of the schools featured homeopathy or alternate medical practices. It was about 1910 that that began to change. New standards were proposed that only the big university programs could meet.
It is likely this led to better medicine, although alternative practices may obviously have value. Certainly one difference was clear. The big medical programs were much less likely to admit women. During the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, there were about 100 women physicians in St. Louis. In 1900, specifically, the count was over eighty. Some were homeopaths, many specialized in women’s health issues, some were thoroughly orthodox. The best known was Dr. Mary Hancock McLean, who is thought to be the only woman allowed to intern in a St. Louis city hospital before the 1940s. Like many of the other orthodox physicians, she was trained at a university outside St. Louis. However, the number of women doctors fell with the new standards. In St. Louis, the only medical schools to meet those standards were associated with Washington University and St. Louis University—and neither admitted women. Washington University finally began to admit a few women, always keeping the number under 5% until the 1960s. SLU didn’t admit women until 1948. In 1950, the number of women doctors in the area, presumably a larger geographic area, was between 60 and 70. These last two paragraphs come from an article I highly recommend: “From Lay Practitioner to Doctor of Medicine: Woman Physicians in St. Louis, 1860-1920,” by Martha R. Clevenger in Gateway HERITAGE, the Winter issue of 1987-88. In fact, check Gateway HERITAGE for all sorts of good articles. Dr. Mary Hancock McLean is featured in an article published in that publication from July 1980. (“Woman’s Place in Medicine: The Career of Dr. Mary Hancock McLean,” by Marion Hunt.)