Part 5: A Captain's Duty

Part 5 of 6 of an interview with David Peck, D.O.


Some people have stated that the Lewis and Clark Expedition would have been better off if they had taken a trained physician along to care for the numerous problems that they encountered.8 I totally disagree. I think that the common sense that Lewis and Clark had as untrained physicians, given the treatments that they had which were woefully inadequate, I think actually produced better results maybe than a trained physician would have. I think a trained physician would have been overly confident and possibly would have been much more aggressive in their treatment of illnesses, often times to the detriment of the patient.

At least until the 1600-1700's, there was a real distinction between physicians and surgeons. Surgeons were involved more in the actual manual application of medical practice. They treated gun wounds (gunshots), they treated abscesses—they treated tooth abscesses by pulling teeth. They were the ones that were responsible for doing human dissections. The physician was more the learned man who made mental decisions about treatment of diseases and didn't ever get his hands dirty. But, in America there was some real differences, there was more of a combining of the two practices between physician and surgeon than there had been historically in Europe.

8. When Lewis stopped at Wheeling, West Virginia, on September 8, 1803, en route down the Ohio River with his keelboat, a young physician named William Patterson expressed a desire to join the expedition. (He was the son of Robert Patterson, the mathematician from whom Lewis had recently received training in celestial navigation.) Apparently they carried on a serious discussion concerning terms of engagement, and Lewis gave Patterson until 3:00 p.m. the next day to make up his mind. Patterson, who is said to have been an alcoholic, failed to meet the deadline, so Lewis went on without him.

Supported in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost-Share Program