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Daniel Drumheller: Good Genes and a Bit of Luck

HistoryLink.org Essay 7266 : Printer-Friendly Format

The writer of this article on Daniel Drumheller was Norman Bolker, a retired physician in Spokane who was interested in western history.  This story of one immigrant's battle with disease originally appeared in The Spokane County Medical Bulletin (Fall 1980). It is here reprinted from Norman Bolker, M.D., "Good Genes and a Bit of Luck," The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter 1989), pp. 14-16.

Good Genes and a Bit of Luck

Merely surviving was an accomplishment on America's frontier, and overcoming serious illness was a personal triumph. Physicians in that milieu must have been acutely aware of their limitations; yet they did much with what little they had, and their patients appreciated them, as Daniel Drumheller, one of the pioneers of the Northwest and an early Mayor of Spokane, related in his memoirs.

Drumheller was an exceptionally durable person. When only 14, he crossed the plains from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, with a wagon train in 1854. He promptly became a full-time cowboy in northern California, had a stint with the Pony Express covering the section through the Carson sink in Nevada, and participated in the Pyramid Lake Indian war, all without illness or injury.

He was accustomed to the hazardous work of rounding up cattle and driving them to grazing areas. His job required him to travel through rough country frequented by outlaws and unfriendly Indians. He worked in desert areas where water was limited and sometimes toxic. He survived all of this unscathed because he had instinctive grace and the good genetic qualities we call a strong constitution.

Eventually the law of averages overtook him. He had been working as a ranch hand near what is now Colusa County, California, in the mid-portion of the Sacramento Valley, when in May 1860, at the age of 20, he decided to migrate to the Walla Walla country, as all of Eastern Washington was then called.

He sailed by steamer from Sacramento to San Francisco, transferring to a steamship bound for Portland. The voyage was long and rough, and young Drumheller attributed a malaise that developed en route to seasickness. Hoping to overcome the symptoms by exercise he tramped through the rain for two days in Portland. In spite of feeling worse, he boarded a Columbia River steamboat which took him as far as the cascades in the river, where Cascade Locks, Oregon, now stands, at which point the passengers had to make a long, hard portage in order to meet another boat that continued eastward. By the time he reached The Dalles, Drumheller was extremely ill and could go no farther. He rented a room in a hotel and went to bed.

Continuing the narrative in Drumheller's own words,

"The next morning, I was unable to get out of bed, and was a very sick man. Some of my friends who stayed over with me that day called in a Dr. Hogg. While Dr. Hogg could not tell what ailed me, he insisted that seasickness was not the cause of my trouble and he began treating me for lung fever.

 

"A nurse could not be found for love or money to take care of me. The little town was completely upset, full and running over by prospectors rushing to the mines. The only care I had during six days of serious illness was what little the doctor could give me, assisted by a chambermaid who would occasionally drop into my room. I was dangerously sick.

"The doctor called early one morning and asked me how I felt. I told him I had slept a little the night before and was feeling better. While the doctor was talking to me, I felt a little itching on one of my arms. I took my hands from under the covering and began rubbing the itching spot.

"The doctor said, 'Let me look at your arm.' He said he thought he could see a little rash appearing, and after examining me carefully he said, 'You have been suffering with a severe attack of measles.' He believed the worst was over. He went out into the hotel kitchen and made a pitcher of stew out of whisky and ginger. The doctor brought back the stew and told me I could drink all I wanted to, the more the better.

"In a few minutes the landlord sent me word that I would have to leave the hotel, as he could not afford to have his business ruined by a measley guest."

 

Dr. Hogg and a charitable townsman arranged for a place the patient could stay and receive some care, wrapped him in blankets, and carried him to a room with a clean bed. Here he continued to receive his doctor's attention and began his recovery. After two weeks he was well enough to continue to the Walla Walla country, where he had a long convalescence and made a full recovery.

There are risks in making a medical diagnosis based on ancient history. Nevertheless, I disagree with Dr. Hogg's diagnosis of measles.

It is highly unlikely that the exanthem of measles would first appear on an extremity, rather than the face, neck, and scalp. The patient did not mention photophobia, conjunctivitis, or upper respiratory symptoms that are so prominent with measles, and although this may be an error of omission, Drumheller was an exceedingly thorough reporter and probably would have described them if they had been present.

I would say instead that our man had picked up a tick-borne infection in the course of his work as a ranch hand just before leaving California. Our patient's rash appeared first on his arm, a finding characteristic for Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, which occurs principally in the northern portion of California, including Colusa County. His illness occurred in May when ticks are abundant, but cases of measles are few. He did not have any known exposure to measles but had frequent exposure to ticks.

Headache and fever usually accompanied by chills develop two to 14 days after an infected tick bite, followed by joint pains and general malaise. A macular rash resembling that of measles spreads from the extremities to the trunk as it becomes generalized. The disease is self-limited with fever abating at the end of the second week. The sequence of events in Drumheller's illness followed this scenario.

We cannot fault Dr. Hogg for his possible misdiagnosis. After all, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever was not recognized as an entity until 1873, 13 years later. Even today, some cases escape recognition. Probably Dr. Hogg saved his patient's life by arranging for his care and shelter, after the severe stress the patient had experienced during the incubation period of a potentially fatal disease. Although his herbal remedy was ineffective, the good doctor's dose of compassion coupled with the patient's immune response made a crucial difference.

After a stint as a cowboy, Daniel Drumheller later became the largest cattle rancher in Eastern Washington, owning as many as 14,000 head at one time. He moved to Spokane in 1880 and organized The Trader's National Bank in 1885. After corporate reorganization, this was absorbed by the Spokane & Eastern Trust Co., which later became part of the Seattle-First National Bank. He was elected Mayor in 1891 and served as the U.S. fiduciary agent for Washington Territory. He died in 1925 at the age of 85.

Sources:
Norman Bolker was a retired physician in Spokane who was interested in western history.


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