Doc Susie, Pioneer Doctor: Sexism, Strange Treatments, and Sterilization Before Antibiotics
January 31, 2017
Have you ever heard of Doc Susie? If you had visited Fraser, Colorado, deep in the Rocky Mountains from 1910 to 1945, you probably would have heard of her. Famed actress Ethel Barrymore wanted to make a biopic about her, but was refused. Although Doc Susie came to Fraser to live out her last days from a longterm case of tuberculosis, instead she thrived in the cold, dry air!! She was a longtime resident and one of only a few country doctors serving a very wide country area. This article will talk about medical school, sexism in the medical profession, early treatment methods, and Doc Susie’s sterilization methods before antibiotics.
Medical School and Sexism: When Doc Susie attended medical school, it was not considered a good job. The hours were long, the pay was low, and it had little prestige. Doctors were on call night and day. (Some of that hasn’t changed!) However, I was surprised to learn that when she attended the University of Michigan, 25% of the student body were females enrolled with her. Later, when the pay and prestige of doctoring went up, female students’ enrollment declined. I’d like to know more about this, whether it was the schools not admitting them, or some families discouraging their attendance.
As far as treating patients, there was some sexism in her community. At first, she was a newcomer. Some men didn’t want their wives to see her. But the wives did seem to want a female doctor with which to discuss their private issues. Others just came to her to ask free advice for their “friend.” In any case, there were rumors of her being a doctor, and sometimes the one or two male doctors were simply not available. Sometimes they were attending a birth out of town for several days. It happened that her first emergency was for Dave…who turned out to be a horse! She was being called upon for an animal patient! Anyway, she did such a good job that she slowly gained some trust and patients. And – (luckily or unluckily?) she lived in an area with several industries with high amounts of injuries: logging, railroads, coal mining, tunnel digging.
Early Treatment Methods: Pneumonia and Wound Care
She was called late one night to the bedside of a young boy about twelve. He had a bad case of pneumonia, which is a deep lung infection. Doc Susie had already been out all day on another call, having just lain down, exhausted. The case caused her some personal flashes back to her brother, who had died years earlier of this same disease. Luckily, she was called early enough to this patient to do something.
She thought the case was severe already, and the patient might die in a day or two. She decided, in her sleep-deprived state, to try something new. She herself had recovered from TB in the cold, dry air. She had the boy undress, and stand in a warm water basin, wrapped only in a blanket. She then opened all the windows to the cold, winter air. At the same time, she poured hot water over his head and down the blanket. As she did this, she percussed his chest and back to loosen the phlegm, and she told stories to keep the miserable patient on his feet. It sounds like she did this for about twenty minutes. Then the patient was dressed again, and covered only with a flannel blanket, instead of mounds of quilts.
I’m trying to figure out why this worked. Extremes of cold or heat (in this case the cold air) can kill of bacteria. Bacteria can survive in many different extreme environments, but they need time to go into hibernation mode.
Cold can stimulate one’s vital response into high gear. Water therapy, like changing one’s bathing from cold to hot water and back again has a lot of history in the Water Cure movement, and in the book Nature Cure by Dr. Henry Lindlahr (This may be available in the public domain. Try the Gutenburg Project website.)
Her own recovery from tuberculosis involved sleep, sleep and more sleep; a daily cup of fresh raw milk right from a cow and into a cup; and exercise that started slowly and worked up. The fresh, cold, dry air really helped her breathe. I wonder why the damp air exacerbates the disease. After all, we use humidifiers in breathing colds at home.
Sterilization Before Antibiotics
You would not believe the trouble she had to go to in order to sterilize her own hands, instruments, wound dressings (old sheets) and the wounds. At this time, people often did not die of the injury, but from later infection that took over.
The bandages and instruments all went through thorough cleaning in hot water and then were pre-packed for emergencies into cloth kits that were wrapped up. The wound dressings were cleaned in hot water, air dried (outside in winter, then later inside). Then they were heated again with a hot iron. Then they were packed up into small kits. Local residents saved their old white sheets for her to cut up and use for wound dressings.
She started with thoroughly washing her own hands (up to the elbow) and nails in soap and hot water. Her instruments went into hot water.
Wounds were first inspected for any debris, clothing, dirt, grit, hair, etc. It was picked out carefully with tweezers. More hot water was used to thoroughly rinse out the wounds (The horse got this treatment, too.) Then all wounds were treated with iodine, which stings, but sterilizes. Then wounds were dressed with clean bandages.
The case of the horse attracted the whole town as an audience. But the crowd thinned out as the treatment lasted all day long!
It’s too bad she could not use herbs, because there are several with antibiotic properties.
My source for this article is the excellent book by Virginia Cornell, Doc Suzie: The True Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies. (Manifest Publications, 1991) The story was told in narrative form, and I believe from exhaustive research. The author studied writing, and ended up living about two miles outside of Fraser. It was captivating, and I couldn’t put it down last night.
To read more about Doc Susie Anderson, check out these sources: