Frontier Doc

Wild Bill’s Disease of Passion?

Venereal disease in the Old West.


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In his 1986 book Deadwood, Pete Dexter depicted Wild Bill Hickok as suffering from some form of venereal disease (VD) and more so from the remedies of the day.

The historical accuracy of Bill’s condition was probably fictional. Dexter’s depiction of Bill’s misery, however, can help us examine the true nature of VD in the Old West, and how these disorders were managed medically in the days before antibiotics and modern diagnostic methods.

Gonorrhea or Chlamydia Jane?

Dexter depicted Bill as having a “blood disease” that affected his urinary tract, which would probably mean he had either gonorrhea or a chlamydia infection.

In the novel, Charley Utter, Bill’s traveling companion, said he believed that Bill’s diminishing eyesight and his difficulty passing urine (spending 30 minutes in the bush) were not separate problems.

From today’s medical perspective, Charley may have been on to something. Chlamydia was then and is now one of the leading causes not only of urinary tract problems but also of blindness.

Dexter,  however, attributed Bill’s problem to glaucoma, a condition in which elevated pressure inside the eye causes damage to the optic nerve, which, if left untreated, may lead to blindness. If glaucoma was the cause, Bill probably would have had gonorrhea.

Poisoning and Other Tortures

Bill was confronted by the unfortunate medical reality that the “cure is often worse than the disease.” Dr. Wedelstaedt, a specialist in “diseases of passion,” prescribed the mercury treatment for Bill.

Dexter described Bill’s condition...

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