story of Texas medicine begins more than four centuries ago somewhere
near the Rio Grande in the vastness of the Big
Bend. No monument stands at the site because no one knows precisely
where it happened, but what took place there marked the moment in
history when the medical arts in this state first advanced beyond
For several years, Spanish explorer Alvar
Nunez Cabeza de Vaca had been wandering across what is now Texas,
trying to reach the settlements of New Spain in Mexico. He had survived
a shipwreck off Galveston Island in November 1528, Indian captivity
and much other hardship.
Thinking he had special powers, the coastal Karankawas forced him
to minister to their sick. At first, the Spaniard merely breathed
on the person, made the sign of the cross and prayed over them.
In an early example of the placebo effect, his treatments often
seemed to work. Even so, Cabeza
de Vaca had been trained as a physician and eventually came
to understand that he could use his medical knowledge to his advantage.
And word of his curative skills spread from tribe to tribe.
In the spring of 1535, Indians, probably Jumanos, brought to Cabeza
de Vaca a man in obvious pain. He had been hit in his right
shoulder by an arrow some time before. The wound had healed, but
the sharp flint arrowhead remained in his body, lodged near his
That, the Indian succeeded in communicating, “gave him much pain,
and in consequence, he was always sick.”
The Spaniard touched the man and could feel the arrowhead deep beneath
Using the knife he carried on his waist, Cabeza
de Vaca made an incision in the Indian’s chest and probed for
“The point was aslant and troublesome to take out,” Cabeza
de Vaca later wrote. “I continued to cut, and, putting in the
point of the knife at last with great difficulty I drew the head
forth. It was very large. With the bone of a deer, and by virtue
of my calling, I made two stitches that threw the blood over me,
and with hair from a skin I stanched the flow.”
de Vaca gave the bloody arrowhead to one of the Indians. Soon,
the entire village had seen the object. By courier, the arrowhead
went to other villages for viewing.
The day after the extraction, the Spaniard cut the stitches. The
wound healed normally and the Indian said he felt no pain, though
he surely remembered the crude procedure for the rest of his life.
“In consequence of this operation they had many of their customary
dances and festivities,” Cabeza
de Vaca wrote after he finally made it back to Spain. “This
cure gave us control throughout the country.” He realized that a
bad outcome likely would have resulted in a decidedly bad outcome
for him as well.
de Vaca finally reached Mexico City in 1536. He and his companions
had trekked more than 2,300 miles over a span of eight year. His
odssey, chronicled in his 1542 book “Relacion,” is considered one
of the most remarkable journeys of discovery in American history.
On top of that, Cabeza
de Vaca’s account of his adventure is the first book ever written
centuries later Spain had considerably deepened its footprint in
Texas. The state of medicine had advanced
considerably, as well.
By the 1700s, Spain had established a series of missions and presidios
along the Rio Grande and San Antonio rivers and at other scattered
locations in its Texas province. Though
de Vaca had spared one Indian much pain, his countrymen brought
smallpox to the New World. The disease took a terrible toll on the
native population as well as the Spaniards.
When Spain learned
of Dr. Edward Jenner’s discovery of the vaccination process in England,
the Spanish crown ordered that smallpox vaccine be sent to New Spain.
The first successful smallpox inoculation program in Texas
took place in San Antonio
de Bexar in 1806.
performed by Cabeza
de Vaca – called a sagittectomy in medical parlance -- is considered
the first surgical procedure on the North American continent.
When a group of surgeons organized the Texas Surgical Society in
1915, they adopted Cabeza
de Vaca as the patron saint of the group. In 1965, Dr. Sam G.
Dunn, a graduate of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston,
presented a drawing done by the El
Paso artist Tom Lea depicting Cabeza
de Vaca removing he arrowhead from the wounded Indian. The work
now hangs in the Blocker History of Medicine Collections at the
UTMB Moody Medical Library.
© Mike Cox
August 21, 2013 column
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