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Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Thomas P. Lowry

Publication Year: 2005

One of the greatest challenges faced by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis on their 1804–6 Corps of Discovery expedition was that of medical emergencies on the trail. Without an attending physician, even routine ailments and injuries could have tragic consequences for the expedition’s success and the safety of its members. Of these dangers, the most insidious and potentially devastating was the slow, painful, and oftentimes fatal ravage of venereal disease.
Physician Thomas P. Lowry delves into the world of nineteenth-century medicine, uncovering the expedition’s very real fear of venereal disease. Lewis and Clark knew they were unlikely to prevent their men from forming sexual liaisons on the trail, so they prepared for the consequences of encounters with potentially infected people, as well as the consequences of preexisting disease, by stocking themselves with medicine and the latest scientific knowledge from the best minds in America. Lewis and Clark’s expedition encountered Native peoples who experienced venereal disease as a result of liaisons with French, British, Spanish, and Canadian travelers and had their own methods for curing its victims, or at least for easing the pain it inflicted.
Lowry’s careful study of the explorers’ journals sheds new light on this neglected aspect of the expedition, showing in detail how sex and venereal disease affected the men and their mission, and describes how diverse peoples faced a common threat with the best knowledge and tools at their disposal.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

A mid-October 2002 telephone call from longtime friend, historian, and author Thomas P. Lowry was exciting and intriguing. He informed me that he and his wife, Beverly – his equal as a researcher –...

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pp. xiii-xvi

Sex is the long-ignored theme of Lewis andClark and their immortal journey. Sex and venereal disease. Sex is "the elephant in the living room," the gigantic fact that all agree to ignore. Comments about sex and venereal disease run rampant in the pages of their...

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pp. xvii

Happy is the author with so many friends and supporters. Kim Holien suggested this book. Budge Weidman and Mike Musick helped me in the National Archives. Ed Bearss encouraged me...

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pp. 1-4

Lewis and Clark, on their immortal voyage of discovery, faced many perils: swelling rivers, thundering waterfalls, hostile Indians, blizzards, frostbite, starvation, grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, and the great unknown of the Rocky Mountains. Of these dangers, one of the...

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1. Venereal Disease Today

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pp. 5-14

Our present knowledge of health and disease results not from any cleverness on our part but rather from the fact that we are the heirs of centuries of dedicated observers. A wholly unearned sense of omnisciencemayseize us aswethink of how ‘"ignorant’" medical...

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2. What Did Lewis and Clark Know about Venereal Disease?

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pp. 15-34

The study of syphilis dates back to 1495, three years after Columbus’s first voyage to the NewWorld and 308 years before the Corps of Discovery started up the Missouri River. It is worth considering the...

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3. The Famous Shopping List

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pp. 35-46

On Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the White House and the Capitol, stands theNational Archives, a vast granite-and-marble monument for the preservation of U.S. historic documents. All researchers leaving the building are searched...

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4. Indian Medicine

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pp. 47-54

Lewis and Clark lived in a time unimaginable to us. It was not just the total absence of steam, gas, electric, or nuclear power, not just the absence of daily postal service, telegraph, radio, telephone, typewriter, computers, and television...

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5. The Voyagers Speak

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pp. 55-84

Manyof themenin theCorps of Discovery voluntarily kept journals. Lewis and Clark had been instructed by President Thomas Jefferson to do so. Sergeants Patrick Gass, Charles Floyd, and John Ordway kept journals, as did Privates Joseph...

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6. Aftermath

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pp. 85-102

Unlike a cold or the flu, syphilis is a gift that keeps on giving. The one-third of infected people who proceed on to develop tertiary (third-stage) syphilis carry a terrible burden...


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pp. 103-110


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pp. 111-114


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pp. 115-117

E-ISBN-13: 9780803204911
E-ISBN-10: 0803204914

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2005