I have read that doctors were until the advent of penicillin not more effective than not seeing one. I am not sure what that meant: surely for some things, it was better to see a physician than not to but I guess for other things, you might be actually injured by the physician. I recall, for example, that by accident it was discovered that cauterizing wounds was not a very good idea when the oil for the procedure ran out and the military doctor could only clean and bandage the wounds of many and those soldiers actually were doing better. And we all know about bleeding and barber surgeons and mercury treatment for syphilis and failure to wash hands, etc.

So I am wondering if the country doctor in western movies was an anachronism or were doctors by the mid 19th century beginning to be respected or perhaps even before that it was a respected profession and if so, why? given their limited ability to treat patients.

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    Your question starts with a false assumption: "Inefficacy of most treatments". Just because a lot of quacks tout "herbal remedies" doesn't mean they are all ineffective. Healers knew how to reset broken bones, how to keep a fever down, the use of some powerful plant preparations. People kept going to them because it helped. Doctor are better now then they were, they know more and are better equipped, but that doesn't mean they were useless back then.
    – RedSonja
    Jul 7, 2020 at 5:22
  • @RedSonja: It's not just efficacy but also lack of standardized credentials. Today, most people understand that a US physician, for example, has managed to graduate from a very competitive medical school but afaik this has not always been the case and at some places and times all you had to do was call yourself a doctor.
    – releseabe
    Jul 7, 2020 at 5:35
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    – MCW
    Jul 7, 2020 at 9:00
  • I like this question, but this might not be an ideal wording. Firstly, I think this is an European phenomenon, and perhaps (not mentioned above) the actual problem is that many doctors favoured 'blood-letting' as a cure for every disease. Of course, they actually could heal some ailments. Some doctors were in demand (e.g., the one for King George III was also sent to heal Queen Maria of Portugal). At the same time, those who had access were also keen to use 'foreign' doctors (the rich and the powerful). Maybe sources to detail the inefficacies you mean could help this question along?
    – gktscrk
    Jul 7, 2020 at 10:54
  • @gktscrk One word: Semmelweis. Jul 9, 2020 at 7:18

1 Answer 1


Respect for doctors rose when they began to follow the newer scientific methods rather than tradition. Western medicine improved with the spread of science, maths and medical knowledge etc into Europe from the Muslim world circa AD 1100. Prior to this medicine followed ancient ideas of Aristotle overlaid with doctrines of Roman Catholicism. The idea of actually examining the patient (sic!) was revolutionary.

As science uncovered the bacterial causes of infection and the importance of cleanliness treatments improved dramatically. I have a old British naval surgical manual circa 1680. Prior to amputations the first act in treatment was to administer the last rites! Your survival chances were not good.

In the days before effective anaesthesia the best surgeon was the fastest one: for example legendary surgeon John Hunter was in demand because of the amazing speed of his surgical interventions.

In older times naturopaths and herbalists were esteemed because their interventions were relatively quite benign compared to doctors and many patients recovered through natural self-healing anyway: the human organism is a self-repairing mechanism, if it fails you die!

The quality of doctor character seen in western movies would have varied from those properly trained in a good medical school of the day eg Edinburgh to complete charlatans.

I have an old Pharmaceutical Codex circa early 1900's. It is a large volume more than 1500 pages many treatments listed for myriad ailments. Some better than others in terms of effectiveness. But very few would pass muster today.

  • No mention of early battle-field surgery is complete without a mention of Baron Jean Larrey. Note the remarkable recovery statistics for the treatment his teams provided to the Old Guard wounded at Aspern-Essling in 1809. Also, leaching and phlebotomy remain today the only treatment - and a very effective one still - for sufferers from hemechromatosis. Jul 7, 2020 at 5:02
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    Nice comment Pieter! Indeed my friend with hemaechromatosis is treated just as you say. Jul 7, 2020 at 7:09
  • 1
    Maybe you can incorporate Pieter's comment and also add some sources? Otherwise, I like this answer (though I would have approached from a different point).
    – gktscrk
    Jul 7, 2020 at 10:52

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