View Full Version : Book Review

09-13-2006, 09:11 AM
A review of "Potions, Lotions and Deadly Elixirs - Medicine in Frontier America" by Wayne Bethard.

I just recently picked up a copy of "Potions, Lotions and Deadly Elixirs - Medicine in Frontier America" by Wayne Bethard as I was cruising the American History section of Borders. The book can be found in the General US History section.

"Potions" is a book written by a pharmacist for the intended audience of amateur historians, historic novelists, and the Morbidly Curious Garbage Minds such as ourselves. The book summarizes medicine and some non-surgical practice throughout the frontier in American history. In this case, "the frontier" covers any time or place which was the edge of what the colonial DWEMs (dead white European Males) considered civilization. Thus, the book also covers medicines used in the 18th century.

The general layout -

One chapter covers the wet medicines - pastes, emulsions, mineral waters and so on.

The drys - pills, powders, cachets, lozenges and so on.

The treatments - examines some common (and not-so-common) methods of treatment.

The List - lists animal, vegetable and mineral substances by their common name, and examines their most common use. By far the longest section in the book. It also lists the approximate year the substance was in most common use, and, if necessary, when its use was halted.

Provides a list of frontier medical dates - inventions and like.

Provides a list of references. Most of them are online sources.


Bethard uses humor and and anecdotes to illustrate his points. Thus it is not only educational, it is entertaining. He would win Chaucer's tale-telling contest.

The book is well-organized.
Bethard is a registered pharmacist.
His sources are about equal between primary and secondary.
Explains the topic in relatively plain English (for amateur surgeons such as ourselves, anyway).


Does not discuss homeopathy and its impact on American medicine in greater detail.
It also ignores Thomsonian medicine.
It does not separate herbal medicines in the list which could be classified as homeopathic vs. allopathic.
The photos he includes misidentifies an ink scraper as a "bloodletting instrument". He also misidentifies the instruments in a nineteenth century surgical kit. What he calls "probes" is actually a top view of amputation knives. The kit is also incorrectly identified as "eighteenth century".

I would recommend this book to any medical reenactor - Colonial, Mex War, ACW or Cowboy/Historic West, civilian and/or military. I would, however, recommend you read it in conjunction with Michael Flannery's "Civil War Pharmcacy" and "A Primer of Civil War Medicine - Non-Surgical Practice" by Bruce Evans in order to cover your bases. All three of the books should give you a good grounding on non-surgical medicine. And of course, any primary sources as well.

Noah Briggs

Delia Godric
09-13-2006, 09:25 AM

Thank you for this very useful review. I found the format you chose informative and complete.
I would like to see more book reviews in this or similar format posted.

Anna Worden

09-13-2006, 09:54 AM
I wish my sixth-grade teacher was as complimentary as you. Back in the day when we did "book reports" we had to fill it with useless fluff to meet the minimum page requirement. :rolleyes:

More reviews to follow as I find things to read. :D

09-13-2006, 03:03 PM
This sounds like what I've been looking for, plus the two other books you mentioned. Thanks!


09-13-2006, 03:25 PM
"A Primer of Civil War Medicine - Non-Surgical Practice" by Bruce Evans is out of print. :sad:

There are ways around it, though. ;)