Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Take two Dover’s and call me in the morning…

By special guest blogger, Stephanie Winnett

Indigestion? Nausea? Hypertension? Fever? Headache? Today, you would drive to the local pharmacy for an over-the-counter medication to cure what ails you. However, at the turn-of-the-century, in rural areas like those around Mingus and Thurber, people relied on country doctors. Dr. John T. Spratt travelled far and wide by horse (and later by car) dispensing medication and using his expertise to spread comfort and healing.


Dr. Spratt atop his horse, Gnat, posing in front of his office.

Thurber, the largest town between Fort Worth and El Paso, was booming when Dr. Spratt moved to Mingus from Pecos with his family in 1904. Mingus at this time was a quarter of the size of the industrial Thurber. Spratt operated as the only doctor there where he built a drugstore and pharmacy. Despite the proximity of Mingus to Thurber, half of Dr. Spratt’s medical fees were paid to him in goods, according to his son, John S. Spratt in Thurber, Texas: The Life and Death of a Company Coal Town. Citizens in and around Mingus did not possess the cash to pay a physician for his services. They would give Dr. Spratt whatever they could spare as payment.

For many years, Spratt practiced out of his office seeing patients and performing minor surgeries. His rural setting did not mean he did not have a sophisticated practice. He had lab equipment including microscopes and an x-ray machine to help better-serve patients. Additionally, he spent a great deal of his time making house calls—delivering babies, prescribing medicines, and delivering tinctures to ill, rural residents. John S. Spratt remembers his father, “practicing medicine for years on horseback with a pair of medicine bags thrown across his saddle.” In 2004, W.K. Gordon Center received Dr. Spratt’s leather medicine saddle bags as a donation.

X-ray bulb from Dr. Spratt's X-ray machine.

The leather medical bags, manufactured by the A.A. Mellier Company in St. Louis, hold several small, glass apothecary bottles. Two tin-lined compartments inside allow for ample storage of medical instruments and supplies. The upper compartment remains stationary while the lower compartment pulls out at an angle, displaying the glass bottles for easy access. Some of the bottles still contain powders with labels identifying their contents:

-Oxalate Cerium—a mixture of cerium metals used to allay gastric irritation.
-Dover’s Powder—a preparation containing opium that was used as a pain reliever.
-Tincture of Aconite—Aconite is a deadly poison, but in the appropriate mixtures could be used to aid in blood-clotting, induce vomiting, or reduce bleeding.
-Oral Potassium—used as a homeopathic remedy for high blood pressure.
-Santonin—a drug that was widely used to expel intestinal parasites from the body.
-Phenolax Wafers—small red pills that contained a chemical common in over-the-counter laxatives.
-Zinc Sulphate—Colorless crystals that are especially effective, when applied through injection, as a treatment of chronic stages of gonorrhea.



The two leather saddlebags used by Dr. Spratt. The key-hole latch would keep bag closed during transit. Originally, the bags were connected by a wide leather strap that would hold the bags on the horse. The maker’s mark is stamped on both bags: “Elliot’s Patent/granted Jan. 18. 1870/A.A. Mellier/St/ Louis, MO/Sole Proprietor.” Saddle bag opened, reveals upper and lower, tin-lined compartments holding medicine and other supplies.

These are only a sample of the many medicines represented in Dr. Spratt’s saddle bags. He also had a stack of loose-leaf note paper possibly used to write down instructions for patients. Spratt traded in his horse and saddlebags for a Ford Coupe late in his career. However, he travelled many miles in the elements on horseback to provide relief, assurance, and good health to the folks of Mingus, Thurber, and the surrounding area.