A cure for nostalgia

Dr. Bob LaPerriere

Photo By Jill Wagner

Your HMO got you down? Long for the days when doctors actually spent time with their patients? When they came to your house in the middle of the night with that comforting black bag and tender bedside manner? If so, then the Sierra Sacramento Valley Museum of Medical History (www.ssvms.org/museum.asp) is your chance to visit that simpler time. Curated by Dr. Bob LaPerriere (pictured holding an antique device used for measuring blood pressure), the museum gives visitors a glimpse of Sacramento history from a public-health perspective. It also suggests that we’ve made a lot of progress in a brief hundred years or so. Nothing says “good old days” like leeches and healthful tonics of whiskey, arsenic and strychnine.

Why a museum of medical history?

I think it gives people a greater appreciation for medicine today when they see how it has evolved. Whether that’s over the last 30, 40 or 50 years since antibiotics started, or even over the last 100 or 150 years. And, in order to appreciate what you have, you have to appreciate what came before you.

Because the old medicine was scary?

Well, I give lectures on Gold Rush medicine, and I often get a lot of comments from people saying, “OK, I appreciate my HMO.” And I think for a lot of the younger people, they don’t realize how rapidly things have evolved. It’s only been 50 years that we’ve been in the era of antibiotics. Not that long ago, really.

Another thing is an appreciation of the communicable diseases that we can now immunize against. I think it gives you a little more insight in the importance of immunizations today.

We have a very interesting history of medicine, much different from the history of the East Coast, that I think we need to preserve. Before the Gold Rush, Sacramento was described as one of the most healthful territories on the continent. But within a very short period of time, it was described as the worst cesspool of disease in the world.


A lot of people are not familiar with the cholera epidemic that we had in October of 1850. We had a thousand people die of cholera in three weeks, and possibly up to 5,000 throughout the foothill area.

Is that a lot?

A thousand people would have been about 15 percent of the population of Sacramento. That included about 17 physicians out of 50 that were in Sacramento. There was just no hygiene, no pure water, no sanitation back then.

It was at least five years after the cholera epidemic that they finally formed a Sacramento city board of health. Even though it was delayed that much, it was still the second board of health in the United States after Boston.

Gold Rush medicine was a little inexact, no?

They didn’t really know the cause of the disease. They were treating them as well as they could with the knowledge of the time. You can liken it to some treatments we have today—cancer, for example. Chemotherapy isn’t getting to the root of cancer, but they are doing the best they can to control it. It was the same philosophy then, just much less effective.

Doctors used technology like leeches, or letting blood?

Yes, bleeding was used for centuries, up until the turn of the 20th century.

Over here, we have these “fleams,” knives basically, that were used to cut vertically into the vein. This was one of the methods of bleeding in a patient. Then there is this rubber-band-operated device that was used to produce “counter irritation.” They felt if you produce a reaction somewhere in the body away from the disease, that humors that they believed were causing disease would be drawn away from the site of the disease. And they would do that by using a cup that produced a blister on the skin or by irritating the skin. And this rubber-band-operated device, when you pulled back and released it, would pierce the skin with all these little needles.

The Chinese community plays a big role in the medical history of Sacramento—

This is a great example of the evolution of medicine. Today, there are a number of physicians and dentists in Sacramento who go by the name Yee. They’re not all related, but at least five or six of them can show their heritage going back to the Gold Rush. There’s a shop in Fiddletown [points to picture on the wall showing a 19th-century herbalist’s shop] that was left almost exactly the way it was 150 years ago. That Chinese herbalist was part of the lineage leading up to the current Yee family. So, that kind of shows the evolution of medicine, particularly Chinese medicine, from herbalism in the Gold Rush era to the modern physicians and dentists that are some of the best in the area.

What’s that bottle of Old Crow doing in the cabinet?

That doesn’t really have much to do with medicine, but it’s interesting. These are old Prohibition-era bottles. See this one—a hundred-proof bourbon whiskey. It has a prescription tag on it that says take a "tablespoon in water if in distress."