Something in the Water

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What medicinal value or effect did the Sulfur Springs waters have, if any? Many have confused sulfur with the word "sulfa," and have attributed an antibiotic effect of the Sulfur Spring water, thereby postulating that the water cured her serious infection. ActuallyThe sulfurous smell of these types of waters comes from hydrogen sulfide gas. Even extremely small amounts of this Link to Telltale Odorgas impart its distinctive odor. However, there is no relationship between hydrogen sulfide or dissolved sulfate salts and sulfa antibiotics nor is there intrinsic antimicrobial effect of the water when taken internally. Neither could vegetation byproducts nor algae have effected a cure.

Eldon G. Chuinard,1 Steven Ambrose,2 and most recently David Peck3 and Bruce Paton4 have more or less subscribed to the theory that the dissolved minerals in this water restored blood electrolytes, which had been depleted by the length and severity of Sacagawea's illness. This would be today's equivalent of the use of intravenous salt solutions or oral Gatorade-like solutions for patients with severe fluid loss from any cause.

This restorative hypothesis has one major weakness. To be effective as oral rehydration agents, Gatorade-like fluids are dependent on a proper balance of minerals and glucose, often in a one-to-one ratio. High concentrations of sugar are necessary for the gut to absorb both the water and the electrolytes. Without sugar the fluids and minerals are absorbed only minimally and are ineffective in correcting dehydration. Mineral spring waters lacking sugar are not equivalents of known effective oral repletive therapies.

Analyses of the Sulfur Spring water made in 1932 and 1997 give us some insight into what effect the water may have had on Sacagawea. The 1997 analysis reported by Dr. Robert Bergantino, of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, revealed the following mineral content, and compared it with a commercial mineral water:

ChemicalSulfur Spring5Perrier!
Calcium2026152
Magnesium1304
Sodium12610
Potassium100.6
Iron0.060
Silica120
Bicarbonate204207
Chloride3226
Sulphate89038
Nitrate0.55
pH6.55.5

1. Eldon G. Chuinard, Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark, 1979), p. 137.

2. Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 241-242.

3. David Peck, D.O., Or Perish in the Attempt: Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Helena, Montana: Farcountry Press, 2002), p. 161.

4. Bruce C. Paton, M.D., Lewis & Clark: Doctors in the Wilderness (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2001), p. 132.

5. Average of 1932 and 1997 analyses.

6. Values are in milligrams per liter.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities