Teach PA History
Captain Lewis and his Medicine Bag
What to Know
Teaching Time
2 40-minute class periods
Grade Level
Middle School
  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
  • History
  • Science and Technology
Historical Period
  • Expansion and Reform - 1801-1855
President Jefferson realized that the health of the men on the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a priority if the expedition were to achieve its goals. No doctor was to accompany the party, so someone had to be trained to treat the medical emergencies and illnesses the expedition might encounter. Jefferson sent Captain Meriwether Lewis, the leader of the expedition, to Philadelphia in the spring of 1803 to be mentored by Dr. Benjamin Rush on modern medical practices of the day. Dr. Benjamin Rush was the most eminent physician in the United States and a personal and trusted friend of Jefferson. He was best known for his bloodletting or bleeding practice, a common and accepted medical treatment of the time. Rush had also patented pills known as Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills that were taken for purging the system of harmful impurities. In addition to instructing Lewis on medical treatments, Rush advised Lewis on rules to promote the good health of his men. He also compiled a list of medical supplies that would be needed for the trip. It was under the guidance of Dr. Rush that Lewis learned the scientific medicine that was practiced throughout the twenty-eight month journey into the unknown. Medical practices had not changed much in over two hundred years by the time of the early 1800s. We now know that most of the scientific treatments of the period were useless and that some were even harmful. Yet at that time, they were considered state of art. It is often said that the members of the Corps of Discovery survived in spite of their medical treatments. Amazingly, only one man died on the journey. The objective of this lesson is for students to gain an understanding of the medical practices of the early 1800s that were used on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


Students will: 1. compile a list of medical needs for a modern day hiking expedition. 2. read and analyze a secondary source about medicine in the early 1800s. 3. analyze a list of medical supplies taken on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 4. analyze journal entries from the Lewis and Clark Expedition and apply their knowledge of medical practices of the period. 5. compare and contrast medicine in the early 1800s with medicine today.

Standards Alignment

  • History

    8.1.9. B. Analyze and interpret historical sources.
    8.1.9. D. Analyze and interpret historical research using primary sources.

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

    1.2.8.A. Read and understand essential content of informational texts and documents in all academic areas.

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