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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / medicine

Venereal Disease and
the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Thomas P. Lowry

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To purchase Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Title: Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Author: Thomas P. Lowry
Genre: History
Written: 2005
Length: 109 pages
Availability: Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition - US
Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition - UK
Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition - Canada
  • With a Foreword by Edwin C. Bearss
  • With numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : informative and fairly interesting monograph

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In his Preface Thomas Lowry notes:

Sex is the long-ignored theme of Lewis and Clark and their immortal journey. Sex and venereal disease. (...) Comments about sex and venereal disease run rampant in the pages of their journals, yet they are mentioned only in passing in the many books about Lewis and Clark.
       Lowry's small book addresses the subjects head-on, offering first a good general introduction to venereal diseases (specifically gonorrhea and syphilis) and their spread (and historical influence), and then specifically their role in the Lewis and Clark expedition.
       The history of the diseases -- especially syphilis, which only appeared in Europe at the end of the fifteenth century -- and their spread, as well as efforts at containment and cures, is fascinating. Lowry covers this territory relatively quickly, but gives a good sense of the many factors at issue, from changing sexual mores to medical approaches to the diseases. The incredibly fast spread of the diseases across populations, as well as the potentially (but not inevitably) terrible physical consequences make for alarming but also grisly-entertaining reading.
       Given the expected duration of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lewis and Clark had to anticipate that party-members would engage in sex along the way -- and be vulnerable to venereal diseases. Lowry goes through the medical part of the famous shopping list for the expedition, and finds clear evidence that they were well-prepared to deal with venereal diseases: "15 percent of the medical shopping list was made up of items for the treatment of gonorrhea or syphilis.". (As he points out, they had to be prepared for pretty much all medical eventualities, since they were unlikely to encounter anyone with medical training along the way.)
       The longest section of the book then looks at the expedition itself, relying on the journal entries and historical evidence to show where and when venereal diseases likely cropped up. The evidence isn't always entirely clear, but there was certainly a fair amount of sex with the Indians along the way, and it would certainly appear that several of the men (and Sacagawea) succumbed to and were treated for venereal diseases.
       Finally, there are also the interesting circumstances surrounding Meriwether Lewis' gruesome death: Lowry considers what might have ailed him (and there are quite a few possibilities), and makes a solid case for syphilis having played a significant role.

       There's a wealth of information in Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and Lowry presents it clearly and well-documented. He's circumspect in his conclusions, acknowledging that a lot of what he discusses is open to debate, but it is an informative, wide-ranging introduction to the subjects (venereal disease and the Lewis and Clark expedition) -- and, by not getting bogged down in too much detail, a quick, sometimes disconcerting (syphilis can be one hell of a nasty disease), always engaging read.

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Venereal Disease and the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Reviews: The Lewis and Clark expedition: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Thomas Power Lowry was born in 1932. He practised and taught psychiatry and has written several books.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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