Red Chair Reads: Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail

During my last trip to Santa Fe, I found Gunstock Hill Books, bookstore for rare and used 1st editions.  I spent an interesting hour talking to the proprietor, Henry Lewis, bibliophile and retired M.D.  It’s a good thing he made plenty of money before opening a bookstore: it is absolutely an act of foolhardy love.

Old medical texts are always interesting; when I hold one in my hands, I feel this kinship — usually tenuous, but nevertheless present — with the generations of doctors/healers who went before.  This kinship holds even when I read, in appalled fascination, the advice and practices of a bygone era.  So I made an impulse buy:  Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail, by Thomas B. Hall, Jr., M.D.

Dr. Hall may have been a good physician, but he was a lousy writer.  I thought the book might have been a vanity press book (limited edition of 1000 copies, of which I now own #542, signed by author), but it was not.  It was published in 1971 by the Friends of Arrow Rock, an organization dedicated to preserving and telling the story of historic Arrow Rock, Missouri.  The standards for a “local history” book is not usually high, and this book was no exception.  For non-fiction works, I like to know why the author wrote the book.  I read the acknowledgments, the introduction, the 11 pages on Dr. Thomas Bryan Lester, and realized that although Dr. Hall wanted to present a history of disease and trauma on the trail through the eyes of a physician who traveled with army units in 1847-48, he simply could not organize his material into a cogent narrative.  The introduction should have been an overview, but was all about Dr. John Sappington, who became “America’s strongest quinine protagonist and its largest user,” and ends abruptly with a sentence about the importance of buffalo robes on the trail.  The next chapter was on Thomas Bryan Lester . . . .  why?  Why did Dr. Hall choose Dr. Lester as the focal point for the book?

The internet to the rescue!

Dr. Lester (1824-1888) was the brother-in-law of Dr. Matthew Walton Hall, who, as it turned out, was the grandfather of the author.  The lineage itself probably is not all that important, but it was important enough to the author that he constructed his micro history around it, and I wish he had clarified it.  Dr. Hall’s narrative truly was excruciating, but I don’t suppose medical school was/is the place to learn the finer points of grammar, punctuation, and essay writing.  I am guessing either no one edited the book, or no one had the gumption to really go at it with a red pencil.  However, Dr Lester’s diary as well as the various tables and data the author gathered from archival sources were fascinating and would be of special interest for those researching life (and death) on the Santa Fe Trail.  I would love to have known about this book a few years back when I was working on my environmental history project.

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