LIVINGSTON — Livingston Parish residents have two modern medical facilities within easy reach inside the parish confines and multiple hospitals and specialty health outlets only a few miles down the interstate in Baton Rouge.
This was hardly the case for the early residents who, until well into the 20th century, could only rely on an inadequate health system that was largely dominated by ancient practices that involved purging, bloodletting and the application of various herbs and tonics derived from plants. Few “physicians” tended to the populace of the area, and their skills were somewhat suspect.
Trent James, a retired physician from Baton Rouge, related these facts and other information about the history of medical care in a talk, titled, “Go Fetch the Doctor!” to members of the Edward Livingston Historical Association on Sept. 19, at the Main Branch of the Livingston Parish Library System.
In his presentation, James traced the history of medical practices in Louisiana from prehistoric times through the early 20th century. Placing emphasis on Livingston Parish health care in the early part of the past century, James pointed out that some of the doctors practicing at the time were hardly models of their profession.
James related that at the 1905 meeting of the Louisiana State Medical Society for the 6th District in New Orleans, a Dr. C.W. Sitman reported that, “Livingston is well filled up with quacks and humbugs but it seems its citizens are well connected to it.
“Livingston is unorganized because there was not enough (doctors) nor the right material (for doctors).”
Certified doctors in the Livingston area had a difficult time in the late 1800s and early 1900s forming a viable chapter for inclusion in the state’s medical society. Between 1895 and the 1920s, few doctors were licensed to practice medicine, and those who were practicing initiated attempts to form a medical society but with little long-term success. By 1904, James said, it appeared the parish counted 17 physicians who provided what medical care was available at the time.
During the course of the parish’s history, some doctors distinguished themselves, James said. For example, Dr. George Colmar, who was practicing medicine in Livingston Parish, was the first doctor in the United States to diagnose infantile paralysis, what is now referred to as polio, in 1841. Also of note was a Dr. John Brashear, who practiced medicine in Livingston Parish during the same time. Besides Colmar and Brashear, doctors of note who served in the parish during the 1800s and into the early 1900s included William Faust, William Williams, Benjamin Singletary and Thomas Odom, he said.
Odum was the first president of the Livingston Parish Medical Society when attempts, though short-lived, were made to form the group in 1909.
No matter which doctors were presiding over the medical needs of the people of Louisiana from the time of its founding, doctors were severely limited with their ability to control disease and trauma derived from accidents. James began his lecture pointing out that medicine in the United States began with Native Americans.
“The earliest doctors were the shamans who were part of Indian tribes who had learned that certain plants, and extracts from those plants, had some medicinal value. Furthermore, they were using sweat baths, purging and bloodletting as part of their medical practices … the same things that European doctors were doing,” he said.
Despite their efforts, however, Native Americans were no match for the diseases brought to the New World.
The early colonists were dependent on herbalists, midwives and “traiteurs” for medical care. The traiteurs were medical practitioners who used special techniques that they acquired in various ways to treat certain ailments. Others who offered various forms of medical care were conjurers, voodoo practitioners and early treatment specials who identified themselves as doctors or surgeons.
James said the early colonists were dependent on the government for medical care. The French made an attempt to offer some form of health care. Over the years, Germans, Acadians, Islenos from the Canary Islands and the Irish came to New Orleans with each bringing some different angles for treating the ill. With Spain’s control of Louisiana between 1763 and 1802, very little was done to provide physicians and midwives, James said.
He said surgeons did have to have a medical degree and had to present themselves before a panel of physicians to gain certification. Apothecaries also had to have a medical certification in Spanish Louisiana.
"In the mid-1700s, and for quite some time afterward, bleeding, purging and treating with mercury were still the mainstays of medical treatment. Mercury is a poison, and yet it was thought to be a curative in those days,” he said.
In 1831, a new Charity Hospital was built in New Orleans, and the facility also served as the first Medical College of Louisiana, the forerunner of today’s Tulane University.
James said that the during the Civil War, “a giant step forward in modern medicine occurred.” He said during the war, medical practitioners became more adept at removing damaged limbs and in treating patients. He pointed out that at the war’s outset, little effort was put forth to remove the wounded and the dead from battlefields, but during the course of the war, that changed for the better. “By the end of the war, elite surgeons were treating the wounded in hospitals, and medicine in general was improving. Despite the progress, two out of three soldiers died from diseases,” he said.
Health care in Livingston Parish gradually improved as the years went by, but many still suffered from the ravages of disease and medical complications, James said. In 1927, the official population of Livingston Parish was 12,268, and those residents were being treated by five doctors who were certified by state medical groups. A health census that year showed the leading causes of death in the parish were heart disease, cancer, measles, complications with child birth and pneumonia.
Modern health care became available on a widescale throughout the nation in the 1930s as more treatments and effective medicines came into general use, he related.
James, a graduate of LSU, who practiced medicine for decades, said he became interested in the history of medicine through an association with Dr. John Duffy, of the Tulane Medical School staff. After retirement, James said he began to study the history of health care in Louisiana and became active in study and research into how modern medicine came to be in the Pelican State. He lectures at LSU’s Rural Life Museum and said he became especially interested in the medical care of slaves on the many plantations in the area.
James said he offers a 12-hour series of lectures on the history of medicine in Louisiana.