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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Cabeza de Vaca, M.D

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The 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 shamanism.

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 heart.

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 his skin.

Using the knife he carried on his waist, Cabeza de Vaca made an incision in the Indian’s chest and probed for the arrowhead.

“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.”

Cabeza 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.

Cabeza 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 about Texas.

Two 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 Cabeza 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.

The operation 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
"Texas Tales" August 21, 2013 column

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