Dakota Datebook

The Circle of Medicine

Thursday, November 20, 2008

 

When Dakota Territory was being settled, licensed doctors were few. Most of the emerging medical facilities were in the bigger cities and ailing patients had to travel long distances to hospitals in Bismarck or Fargo, or depend on the services of the doctors at the frontier military posts. In 1875 someone living in the Grand Forks area needed to travel 95 miles to Fort Pembina, 80 miles south to Fargo or 96 miles west to Fort Totten to obtain help. Spread out over the area were a dedicated group of midwives and local medical “irregulars,” who were people with medical training but who were not licensed doctors. These frontier, medical irregulars, along with the horse and buggy doctors administered to the sick.

As the state was settled, many of the cities and towns built hospitals and provided local services but they could not provide the higher end equipment. There evolved a group of specialists who traveled the countryside with their modern equipment, with variable degrees of professionalism. On this date in 1906, a man by the name of Dr. Charest was administering to the sick at the Grace Hotel in Lakota, one of his many monthly stops. His practice contained the most up to date equipment such as X-ray, Radium Rays, Finsen light which used ultraviolet light, a Lymph machine and even vibrators for massage techniques. He also provided an array of medicines. Dr. Charest claimed that he could treat anything including diseases of the eyes, ears, kidney, liver, vertigo, memory problems, female complaints and more serious diseases such as cancer and tuberculosis in the early stages. He made his circuit through eastern North Dakota stopping in many communities every four weeks to follow up on patients.

Throughout the last one hundred years medicine has evolved. Economic conditions caused the closing of many of the local hospitals and the rural population has declined.

Today’s skylines in the bigger cities are highlighted by the prominent hospitals and care centers with the centralizing of medical services. In many instances Nurse Practitioners, and even midwives, are the only medical specialists within 30 to 50 miles and large trucks with specialized medical services such as MRI’s and other devices travel the state providing access to equipment, unavailable to local communities otherwise. So the history of medicine in North Dakota appears to have gone full circle. The centralized medical centers, local “irregulars”, and traveling specialist of the late1800’s and early 1900’s which had been replaced by local hospitals and care centers have in turn been replaced by today’s centralized medical centers, Nurse Practitioners and midwives and traveling specialized equipment. History may repeat itself, although the house calls with the horse and buggy are probably gone forever.

Sources:
Lakota American November 8, 1906
North Dakota Medicine Sketches and Abstracts by J. Grassick 1926

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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