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Unit 3: Set 6: Section 1: Scurvy in the Frontier Army - Surgeon Intro

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Introduction | Reports

Starting January 1, 1869, Army surgeons (physicians, also known as Assistant Surgeon or Acting Assistant Surgeon) received a large blank book titled “Record of the Medical History of the Post.” Twice a year, the surgeon was to complete the record of sanitation and health at each Army post.

The following selections from these documents contain some of the entries from each Army post in Dakota Territory for 1870 and 1874. The compiler of the reports indicated that in general the death rate (mortality) of soldiers was lower than “in previous years, but higher than that of civilian men of the same ages.” (Circular No. 4, p. xxxii) So, it appeared that while efforts to improve the diet and living conditions at military posts had been successful, the life expectancy of soldiers was still compromised by poor health.

Each surgeon also reported on the size and history of the post, the square feet of space per soldier in the barracks and the quality of light and air. They also reported on the ability of the surrounding area to support agriculture and about the quality of the soil and the kinds of plants and animals in the area.

The selected quotations from these two sets of reports suggest that Dakota is a healthy place to live, that scurvy had become a less important health problem, and that post gardens were cultivated with some success. Surgeons were also interested in how Indians managed to avoid scurvy, though they knew little about the storage systems Indians used for dried vegetables and for pemmican which preserved fruit and meat in animal fat.

The surgeon’s reports were an important resource for determining not only the health of the command, but whether settlers would be able to live and farm successfully in the region. The surgeons generally reported good soil and an abundance of wild fruit, but grasshoppers and inadequate rainfall were constant problems.

Sources:

Circular No. 4: Report on Barracks and Hospitals with Descriptions of Military Posts [1870] by John S. Billings, Assistant Surgeon, United States Army (New York: Sol Lewis, 1974);

Circular No. 8: Hygiene of the United States Army with Descriptions of Military Posts [1874] by John S. Billings, Assistant Surgeon, U.S.A.

Circular No. 9 Report to the Surgeon General on the Transport of Sick and Wounded by Pack Animals by George A. Otis, Assistant Surgeon, U.S. A. (New York: Sol Lewis, 1974)

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