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1800-1860: Science and Medicine: Overview

1800-1860: Science and Medicine: Overview

A Collision of Worlds. At the time of the founding of the United States diverse peoples with varying languages, religions, and levels of technology lived across the breadth of North America. On the Eastern seaboard, the former English colonists struggled with their new republic; west of the Appalachian Mountains hundreds of indigenous groups farmed, hunted, and traded for subsistence, and in the Southwest, Spanish missionaries and ranchers occupied the northern reaches of New Spains frontier, living in a tenuous balance with nomadic raiding tribes. Though already linked through continental trade networks by 1800, Americans often had only vague knowledge of each other and the land itself. The process of American expansion from 1800 to 1860 that extended the United Statess political boundaries west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the Rio Grande brought these peoples together in a maelstrom of scientific discovery: mapping mountains and rivers, documenting newfound animal and plant forms, adapting technology for new Western cities, and utilizing the fruits of the land to fight illness and produce food. Yet these collisions also raised important questions about the people themselves, about the origins of Indian society and their relationship to Europeans, and how all fit into the Great Chain of Being. The answers that naturalists, explorers, and healers suggested to these questions did more than contribute to scientific learning; these hypotheses also repudiated, or in some cases justified, military expansion and cultural warfare. As in all cases throughout history, science and medicine in the American West influenced and was influenced by the diplomatic, economic, and social interactions of the people who met there.

New Lands and Peoples. People, of course, did not discover the West in the nineteenth century. Native Americans had traversed its regions for centuries and created elaborate civilizations that rose and fell long before European contact. Indigenous peoples understood the land intimately since they depended on it for survival; predicting weather, watching animal movements, and knowing the location of vital water holes and mountain passes proved crucial for existence. Though many twentieth-century observers might hesitate to call it science, Indians possessed a working understanding of geography, zoology, and meteorology that preceded the formation of those same disciplines among Europeans. Yet beyond the confines of specific natural territories Indians lacked knowledge of other continents and civilizations. Americans of European descent, by contrast, knew the broad contours of the world since the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and James Cook but understood few details about the North American landscape beyond territory they had traveled prior to 1800. Westward expansion, then, proved a process of mutual learning. White explorers efforts in cataloguing the Rocky Mountains, Great Salt Lake, Missouri River, and many other natural wonders could not have occurred without the assistance and teaching of Indian guides. Indians too came to understand through white contact the existence of a larger universe that challenged their traditional beliefs. Historians often focus on the violence that shaped collisions between these peoples but overlook the countless episodes of cooperation and learning that stimulated for both a New World perspective.

The Great Chain of Being. During the eighteenth century Anglo-Americans and Europeans gained new perspectives from the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that taught the value of reason and observation in understanding the natural world. Scientists believed that animals, plants, minerals, and even governments and ideas sprang from some common source and were thus interrelated. Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who established a system of classifying and naming life-forms, helped to establish this notion of the Great Chain of Being. In contrast to previous theories that had asserted separate creations or claimed that life could emerge from nonliving things, Enlightenment philosophers held to the theory of biogenesis, that life originated only from other life. New science attempted to document all forms on earth and classify them into their respective places in the chain of life. Anglo-Americans and Europeans sought to place the people and creatures of North America into this structure, studying the rattlesnake, the grizzly bear, and the bison and trying to decipher their relationships to similar Old World animals. One of the most daunting questions involved the origins of Native Americans. From what branch of humanity did they descend? Or did they stem from a separate origin, refuting the very notion of a single human race? In time such speculations encouraged the formation of racial theory, the thesis that humans are divisible into population groups and evolve at different speeds. Most contemporary biologists now dispute the idea of race. However, in the early 1800s the concept held potential for explaining the great diversity of peoples and cultures encountered by Europeans in North America.

New Diseases and Medicines. Human beings, however, seldom passively observe nature; they alter it by their presence. European descendants had brought to the Western Hemisphere plants such as wheat and peach trees as well as livestock, mostly cattle, horses, sheep, and hogs. They unwittingly transported disease-bearing microbes previously unknown in the Americas. Europeans often carried acquired immunities to diseases such as smallpox and measles that Indians lacked, and the introduction of these new organisms wrought horrific epidemics in Native American communities, killing thousands. Most major epidemics raged through the West prior to the nineteenth century, before natives encountered European colonists through war. Yet even after 1800 Western migration remained an unhealthy endeavor that affected whites as well as Indians. Poor diet, inadequate sanitation, an overabundance of alcohol, and the scarcity of trained physicians made sickness on the frontier much more dangerous than elsewhere. Like the Indians whom they encountered, pioneers discovered ways to cope. They employed herbal medicines and other native treatments to deal with a variety of ailments. Westerners became their own doctors. Through this accommodation they contributed to later generations knowledge of medicine and healing in ways that rivaled the great geographic and anthropological discoveries that characterized the age.

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