President Thomas Jefferson had Meriwether Lewis consult the famous physician Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia for advice on how to manage medical problems likely to occur on the long voyage to and from the Pacific. Lewis came away with a large supply of Rush’s potent laxative prescription (known as “thunderclappers”) and which turned out to be a godsend to men often restricted for weeks on end to an all-meat diet. Another particularly useful medication was Rush’s prescription for a lead acetate solution to be applied topically for inflammatory eye disease. This condition was found frequently among the Indians that Lewis and Clark encountered in the two years of the expedition. In April, 1806, Lewis wrote in his journal:…“we gave them some eye water which I believe will render them more esential sirvece [sic] than any other article in the Medical way which we had it in our power to bestow on them. Sore eyes seem to be a [serious] universal complaint among these people.”
Rush’s prescription proved to be a useful currency in obtaining the goodwill of the Indians, whom the explorers depended upon for topographical information as well as horses at critical points in the voyage.
REFERENCE: Frayer,WC: Doctor Rush’s Eye Water and the Opening of the American West. Survey of Ophthalmology . Volume 46, Issue (2), September–October 2001, Pages 185–189.
Submitted by Ronald Fishman MD from the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society.