Frontier Medicine at Fort Davis and Other Army Posts : True Stories of Unglamorous Maladies
BY DANIELLE GALLO
Donna Gerstle Smith of Fort Davis knows about bringing history to life . As a ranger at Fort Davis National Historic Site , she saw that visitors responded most to stories about the real people and events that took place in the buildings that have been lovingly restored and preserved there . As an historian , it was her job to interpret the physical remnants of a bygone era for modern visitors — and to place them into a context where these remnants could become a touchstone to the people and happenings of the past .
Smith wrote her master ’ s degree thesis on medicine at frontier military posts , with a particular focus on Fort Davis . She worked nearly three decades as a park ranger and historian with the National Park Service , diving deep into primary documents such as letters , army medical records and journals .
Her book , published in 2022 by The History Press , is a fascinating compilation of stories about frontier medicine . The records kept by U . S . Army doctors at frontier posts offer a window into medicine in the 19th century . The letters and journals of the soldiers stationed there provide a depth and richness to the tales , putting names and faces to stories of injury , sickness and hardship . Sometimes humorous , sometimes sorrowful , always interesting , these vignettes of life on the edge of the American wilderness are engaging and provocative . For residents of the Trans-Pecos , the familiar names and places add a particular interest to the history .
The story of the 1891 diphtheria epidemic in Fort Davis is a stellar example . George Bentley , a
Buffalo Soldier from the Ninth Cavalry who remained in Fort Davis after his honorable discharge , and his wife , Concepcion , lost all seven of their children to the dreaded disease within a three-week period . Even though Concepcion was 44 at the time , the couple managed to later have three more children , all of whom survived to adulthood . Some of their descendants still live in Fort Davis . Their family stories talk about the faith of George and Concepcion , who were comforted through their tragic loss by the belief that God needed their children to be his angels .
In 1884 , baseball was introduced at Fort Davis , shortly after being adopted by the U . S . Army as the national pastime . Immediately , baseball-related injuries began to be recorded by the post surgeon . As the game at that time was played without gloves , injuries to hands and fingers were common ; but the surgeon reported more serious injuries over the next few years , including eye injuries , fractures and sprains . Two finger injuries even resulted in amputations . Because the sport was officially sanctioned , these injuries were recorded as being “ in the line of duty .”
In contrast , another common injury recorded at frontier posts was not considered “ in the line of duty .” These were “ man bites ,” and were the result of fights , often drunken , which were a common occurrence at army posts . One such brawl at Fort Davis on New Year ’ s Day in 1882 resulted in Private James Henry losing an ear to a fellow soldier .
Smith devotes many pages to the women of the
24 Cenizo Spring 2023