The ledger is the most complex of Bristow’s documents, and is also the hardest to research and comprehend. According to the ledger entries, Dr. Bristow saw several hundred people, in about 250 families, over a 30 year period. He provided enough details about the medicines he used to help us develop an understanding of what his patients were suffering from and the philosophy behind his treatments. This latter feature is perhaps its most important contribution to Midwestern, Oregon Trail and Oregon State medical research. We are rarely fortunate enough to have a physician whose personal philosophy about health can be understood at such a detailed level, by the drugs that he used, how he used them, his details on the sources for his knowledge, and the knowledge of his and his family’s views on life over the years.
If we take a few of the other details of Bristow’s entries into consideration, such as the occasional symptoms mentioned, the age of the patient, the time of the year, and how many others got sick either in the house or in the immediate neighborhood, we can define a lot about the kinds of illnesses Bristow was dealing with, and how Dr. Bristow believed his medicines worked. We can tell for example which of those patients of Dr. Bristow suffered from the famous diphtheria epidemic that struck the state of Oregon in the 1860s, and we are told a considerable amount about what kind of disease Bristow felt diphtheria to be. Whereas many doctors often treated this ailment as a severe example of the sore throat, the obvious nature in which the patients with this disease presented itself, and its known fatal nature, coupled with Bristow’s importance in the community as a physician, led Bristow to make contact with and discuss these cases with one of the most important physicians in Oregon non-allopathic medicine history, Dr. Sheldon, the editor of the first medical journal published in Oregon, a journal devoted to non-allopathic medicine.
In a few special situations, we also find information that provides us with very important insights into human behaviors for the time. There are examples of how individual participated as non-physicians in the medical world marketplace. We are also told about some of the the popular culture fads out there in this part of Oregon between 1860 and 1880, like the period when Bristow was experimenting with electric cure devices and became a devoted early form of exercise therapist, constructing one of the state’s first gymnasiums for health related purposes.
There are also a number of fascinating cases uncovered by Bristow’s ledger. There is the obvious case of delirium tremens that Bristow had to regular treat. There is also the mention of a neighbor starting up a medical garden to grow plants in that were native to the Eastern United States. Bristow himself made sumerous attempts to engage in some unique forms of herbal medicine with very unique philosophies that are rarely covered elsewhere in medical history writings, such as the local chittem bark (cascara sagrada?). As an example of an important piece of local sociological and legal history regarding medicine, Bristow’s ledger provides us with a timeline of his life as a physician, beginning on saddleback in Lane County when no regulatory programs were in place for drug use and doctoring, ending at the time when the first state legislation was passed regarding the licensure of physicians by a state board.
Bristow’s practice as told by his ledger is a gold mine of information, with one vein after another being uncovered each time this information gets broken down in some new fashion. The information in Bristow’s Ledger was entered by hand, and in the notes is not always exactly as it appeared in the original document. For the most part it retains the original lettering, words and abbreviations. On occasion, in reviews that consist of analyses, I abbreviated this information in order to better represent a pattern of behavior that appears in some parts of Bristow’s work. For example, Bristow’s visits for the purpose of delivering children have been separated for a separate review. Several disease patterns were isolated for another review on their own. Some of the more important families serving as examples of a certain public health related concern were reviewed on their own as well.
To get a taste of how medicine on horseback was practiced during this time in Oregon history, examples of Bristow’s visits and their related notes are worthy of review. There are pages devoted to specific patient interaction types or visits. The obstetrics visits and child deliveries he engaged in are detailed on their own page. Certain medicines are handled separately due to the unique philosophies in contrast with allopathy that these remedies were evolved from. Bristow’s work as a doctor is truly eclectic in nature. His practice began as a Thomsonian, but immediately migrated into the religious form of this practice, a little more bible related philosophical than its inventor Samuel Thomson was, being that Bristow was from the Bible Belt. But Bristow’s ideology quickly transformed into the Eclectic form of medicine initiated and promoted by Wooster Beach and his followers in Ohio and the neighboring states by about 1845. Once he was better read in Beach’s writings, Bristow reinitiated his practice in Oregon around 1857 as an eclectic physician with interests in local Indian Root Doctoring, local Native American remedies, the newly evolving chemical form of herbal medicine being developed which made use of tinctures of plants, gymnasium and exercise therapy, water cure, and the Bible philosophy of healing. Next Bristow learned all about the increasingly modern philosophies of medicine, ranging from the first versions of the non-bacterial (or in this case non-fungal) theory for diseases like tuberculosis or consumption, to some natural philosophical cause for his own rheumatoid arthritis condition, now effecting his knees in a serious way and perhaps the functionality of his heart (rheumatic heart disease).
The one form of medicine, by now very popular, that Bristow did not practice was the standard homeopathy. By 1875, there were three distinct sects of medicine, each with political strongholds and associations. There were the allopaths, the homeopaths, and the eclectics. The eclectics had incorporated into their sect the other non-homeopathy “irregulars” such as Indian Doctors, water curers, herbalists, Thomsonians, electrotherapists, exercise therapists, food/nutrition therapists, and religiotherapists. (Note, not all of these words were then used at this time to describe these medical practitioners.)
Bristow’s work by 1875 began to appear much like the alternative, complementary or non-allopathic medicine of today. He used a number of plant related formulas for his practice, but experimented with electrogalvanism, promoted exercise and gymnastics, was probably very much attentive to the roles of nutrition and food or dietary practices in health, and retained his family beliefs in the importance of the church when it came to health. John Kennedy Bristow’s life is very unique in that it continues through several of the most important periods in alternative medical history, involving two parts of the United States–the Midwest Bible Belt and the Pacific Northwest.