I have a few questions about the history of California and the pneumonia epidemic associated with the Wild Wild West and medicine before the antibiotic was created. Do you have any information about who those doctors were or why their abusive doctoring was widespread?

Anastasia Duke




Dear Ms Duke,


Not only do we have nothing about “abusive doctoring,” but the editor of Wild West informs me:

 “Haven’t heard about pneumonia being a big problem during the California Gold Rush. The question isn’t specifically about the time of the Gold Rush, is it? Cholera was a big killer then, and the most dangerous disease might have been scurvy.

Apparently there was some kind of pneumonia epidemic in at least one mining camp in early 1900s. “The Tonopah Plague” was actually pneumonia, but that happened in neighboring Nevada. See https://books.google.com/books?id=gHcHAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA562&lpg=PA562&dq=were+there+pneumonia+epidemic+in+Gold+Rush+California&source=bl&ots=HKRg7Teyfl&sig=Arb3j_3OMguUONFQ2AjJEintZiM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwilr7PJ9N3dAhVuU98KHfMsC5sQ6AEwEXoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=were%20there%20pneumonia%20epidemic%20in%20Gold%20Rush%20California&f=false




Peculiar Epidemic In Nevada Mining Camp Explained by a Victim Who Is Here Recuperating

Dr. H. E. Piper, a practicing physician of Tonopah, now in Los Angeles, says the reports of sickness at that mining camp have been greatly exaggerated.

“It is not the black plague, nor any other kind of plague,” he said last night, “but simply an acute pneumonia of a very severe type. I myself suffered from it for three weeks and I am now in Los Angeles to recuperate.

“The sickness is believed to be due to the lack of sanitary conditions, and a sufficient sum of money has been raised by public subscription to thoroughly cleanse the town.

The disease, strangely enough, attacks only grown men. It became prevalent in the latter part of February, but is now well under control and the many people who left the camp are now returning.


“In the early history of Tonopah the town underwent a similar epidemic, which failed to affect women and children. Other camps have not been affected. Personally I think it is probably due to some climatic condition with which we are not familiar.

“Pneumonia is also connected with influenza. There was the big influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, of course, but there was an earlier one in 1889-1890 but not sure any specific link to California mining camps.

Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious viral infection that is one of the most severe illnesses of the winter season. Influenza is spread easily from person to person, usually when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Pneumonia is a serious infection or inflammation of the lungs. The air sacs fill with pus and other liquid, blocking oxygen from reaching the bloodstream. If there is too little oxygen in the blood, the body’s cells cannot work properly, which can lead to death.

“Influenza is a common cause of pneumonia, especially among younger children, the elderly, pregnant women, or those with certain chronic health conditions or who live in a nursing home. Most cases of flu never lead to pneumonia, but those that do tend to be more severe and deadly. In fact, flu and pneumonia were the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2015.”

That’s all we know.


Jon Guttman