For the most part, early settlers had to self-treat their wounds using natural remedies to heal the infections and diseases that befell them.
While some treatment methods could be considered acceptable by today’s standards, others such as purging the stomach, bleeding and the use of leeches might be considered irrational.
The Seminoles used herbs and bleeding to cleanse their bodies in times of sickness. In the book The Lures of Manatee, by Lillie McDuffee, the Wyatt family discovered a band of Seminoles, Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs among them. The group had been quarantined from the rest of their tribe and was conducting the bleeding method of cleansing.
The first doctor to come to the area was Dr. John Oliver Brown who moved to Palmetto in 1893 at the age of 24 to practice medicine.
Brown was particularly interested in typhoid and malaria (also referred to “Intermittent Fear”) fevers. At the time, most doctors believed that inhaling rotting vegetation caused malaria. However, Brown associated the disease with mosquitoes and ordered all open-water wells filled and all rainwater cisterns covered because he believed it would reduce the population.
Brown served the community for 57 years, delivering 976 babies and traveling as many as 30 miles on horseback to tend to his patients.
When a doctor wasn’t available, the women in the community served as healers. Pioneer housewives had access to medical books for guidance.
Each family kept a garden near their home containing essential medicinal herbs. According to historian Adam Wescott, palmetto berries and pennyroyal tea were used for colds and flu, soda and ginger helped treated colic, lemon, honey and horehound were used for cough, cinnamon and nutmeg helped with diarrhea, willow bark reduced fever, oak bark tea or a drop of turpentine on a lump of sugar was used for worms, chewed tobacco poultice was applied to insect stings and kerosene or animal fat healed wounds.
But people with more severe sicknesses or long term illnesses might seek out a more experienced “herb woman” or be taken to the doctor, which often meant traveling many miles to the next town or city.
Northern doctors prescribed a trip to Florida for several diseases such as tuberculosis. That is how many of the area pioneers ended up in Manatee County.
The fact that people came to Florida to better their health was also enticing to doctors.
Dr. Franklin Branch, born in 1802 in Orwell, Vermont, moved to the Village of Manatee in October 1846 and purchased the land that included the Manatee Mineral Spring.
Branch planned to build a sanatorium and utilize the supposed healing properties of the mineral spring to treat his patients.
The buildings he constructed were instead fortified with sable palm trunks for protection against the Seminoles. Instead of patients, residents of Manatee occupied the structures of what became known as “Fort Branch” for nine months, during the Third Seminole War.
During that time, Branch delivered three babies and treated a variety of ailments. Following the death of his wife, he sold his property and moved his practice elsewhere.
Dr. John S. Helms arrived in Palmetto in 1896. Immediately, he noticed many of the area’s children featured sallow complexions and behaved lethargically. He discovered they were suffering from hookworm, an often-fatal ailment that plagued many southern states. A simple step of better sanitation eradicated the parasite. Helms later opened a drugstore at Ninth Avenue and Fourth Street.
The germ theory of disease did not become the basis of treatment until the late 1800s.
One of the babies delivered at Fort Branch was Furman Charles Whitaker, the first native-born resident of Manatee County to become a doctor and practice in the area.
Furman had injured his elbow as a boy, without the capability of doing physical labor, he was sent to Danville, Kentucky to study. He returned in 1877, at the end of the Civil War.
He established his medical practice first in Sarasota in 1896, then in Bradenton in 1898. From 1906-1909 Furman practiced general medicine, then went to New York City for his specialty diploma. He was the first Eye, Ear and Nose specialist to practice in Manatee County, returning in 1911.
Dr. Jack Halton was the first doctor to open a practice in Sarasota, 1904. Four years later, he opened the Halton Sanatorium. However, many historians believe it was his wife who was the real healer in the family.
Back then, women could not earn their doctorate, but they could become midwives.
Cornelia Ponder, of Punta Gorda, was one of the most well-known midwives in the region. Born in 1874 in Georgia, she received medical training was the only midwife to serve the Punta Gorda area during the turn of the century, delivering babies of all ethnicities although she was black. She delivered hundreds of babies in the region.
Antibiotics weren’t invented until the 1930s. Today they are prescribed without a thought, but it wasn’t that long ago that simple herbal ingredients did the job.