Just as many other people are, I’m anxiously waiting for a Covid-19 vaccination. How fortunate we are to live now when so many vaccines are available to prevent deadly diseases that regularly dispatched people at a young age. As I read in Bill Bryson’s book The Body: a Guide for Occupants, vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and measles saved the lives of millions. Better sanitation, improved diets, and fresher foods also helped in a major way.
In the early 1800s in Alta California, there were no doctors and little medicine. Smallpox caused virulent epidemics in the Native American population, but occasionally the vaccine was available to inoculate some of them. Because Captain Richardson had some medical experience during his service in the British merchant marines, he helped the friars at the California missions when he could. For common illnesses, most medicines were made from plants. Blackberry syrup was used to treat coughs. Indigenous people in California drank a tea made with the leaves of a native shrub, now known as mountain balm, as a remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, and bronchitis. After they taught Spanish settlers to use it, the Spanish called the herb yerba santa, meaning “holy or sacred herb.” Chemicals in the leaves are effective in loosening phlegm. Chumash people in Southern California probably taught Richardson to use the leaves in a poultice to relieve pain from sprains, bruises, and arthritis. When doctors or naval surgeons visited California, they might provide doses of medicines such as laudanum, mercury, or calomel. Some of these proved to be worse than the illnesses they were supposed to cure. Laudanum was addictive, and mercury, used to treat syphilis, could kill the patient.