A Tent Hospital at the Gold Diggings

Medical View of the California Gold Rush

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612. TYSON, James L[awrence]. Diary of a Physician in California; Being the Results of Actual Experience, Including Notes of the Journey by Land and Water, and Observations on the Climate, Soil, Resources of the Country, Etc. By James L. Tyson, M.D. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 200 Broadway; Philadelphia: G.S. Appleton, 164 Chestnut-Street, 1850. [1-3] 4-92, [4, ads] pp. 8vo (23.8 x 14 cm), later beige cloth, gilt-lettered white leather spine label. Old ink note (probably accession number) on title and four red ink stamps of the Mercantile Library of New York (one of the stamps is on the title). Other than a bit of chipping to the blank margins of a few leaves, condition very good.

     First edition. Bradford 5528. Cowan I, p. 235. Cowan II, p. 648: “This work has a greater originality than the majority of similar narratives written by the adventurers of that time.” Hill I, p. 596. Hill II #1735: “Dr. Tyson was among the earliest to attempt any kind of hospital service at the diggings. The account is especially noteworthy in its record of the Oregonians, who were among the earliest to arrive at the California gold-fields.” Howes T451. Howell 50, California 235. Jones, Adventures in Americana 260: “Accurate observations of a trained eye. Dr. Tyson sailed from Baltimore January 16, 1849, for the Isthmus, arriving at San Francisco on May 18. He established a tent-hospital at a gold ‘diggings.’” Norris 4040. Rocq 16114. Sabin 97640. Streeter Sale 2656: “One of the best contemporary accounts in print of travels to the northern mines of California and of life there in the summer of 1849.... His thumbnail sketches of New York on the Pacific, ‘without a house or tent visible,’ of Sacramento, ‘a few stores and houses,’ of the Johnson Ranch and Vernon and other places, are distinctly worthwhile.—TWS.” Vail, Gold Fever, p. 25. Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 211.

     Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 655a:

Tyson states in his book: “My object in visiting California was two-fold, to become familiar with its diseases, particularly at the mines, and to select a location for permanent settlement. Becoming a victim to one of the former, and my tastes not inclining to the rugged hardships of the latter, I remained only long enough to gain the knowledge I sought.” Despite his short stay, Tyson produced one of the foremost accounts of the Northern Mines in the summer of 1849. The physician sailed from Baltimore on January 16, 1849 aboard the schooner Sovereign and reached Chagres on January 29. After crossing the Isthmus, he boarded the barque John Risdon, and arrived in San Francisco on May 18. Journalist Stephen C. Massett traveled with him. That summer, he established a hospital in Sacramento. He began the return journey home on October 1, 1849, aboard the steamer Oregon, and arrived back in New York on November 11.

Tyson’s book is important in that it not only described his adventure, but also included advice on how to stay healthy for those crossing the Isthmus or working in the mines. He wrote: “I never saw so many broken-down constitutions as during my brief stay in California.”

Here is an entirely different perspective of the California Gold Rush at its height. Assuredly, Dr. Tyson describes the usual rigors of the voyage, the vices of gambling and groggeries, but the unusual perspective is medical. In Chapter XXIII (p. 69), Dr. Tyson commences with “Determine to Establish a Tent-Hospital”:

Many miners...had strongly urged me to establish a tent-hospital. So importunate were some, and so zealous in recounting its advantages, that I at length determined to adopt their suggestions. As nothing suitable for my purposes could be obtained where I then was, it became necessary that I should visit the “Embarcadero” to carry out my plans and make proper arrangements for such an establishment.

Dr. Tyson continues in the next chapters telling all of his adventures and observations in a most lively and interesting narrative. Any new physician setting up a practice today and complaining of the hoops one must jump through should be assigned a reading Dr. Tyson’s account, which involved losing his horse when buying supplies in San Francisco, riding bareback and lassoing said horse near Sutter’s Fort, travelling with hundreds of yards of cotton duck on horseback, losing his rations when a deer startled his horse, getting lost in the wilderness on his way back to the mines, switching from horse to mule team on the steep and ragged narrow trail to the mining camp (the mules kept tumbling down the ravines), etc. etc. etc. The doctor closed down his tent hospital when the gold ran out and the camp dispersed to the rumored next best gold strike.


Sold. Hammer: $150.00; Price Realized: $183.75.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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